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EQUAL UA - by Scott Goldberg

I attended an event held by EQUAL UA.  You may have seen their yard signs around town—EQUAL Together We Are Better. EQUAL UA is an organization with the goal of fostering a welcoming and tolerant community.  A place where differences can be celebrated and appreciate rather than ignored or assimilated.  

Two brave young (especially when compared to me) black men raising their families in UA spoke about their experiences in our community.  They both spoke of racist encounters right here in UA. They then went on to discuss an incident involving a young black boy who was stopped by the police for suspicious activity in UA back in July.  The suspicious activity—delivering newspapers. I was embarrassed as they described these incidents that not only had they occurred in the community I call home, but that I wasn’t even aware that any of it had occurred.  

The young men described why they chose to live in UA.  Their answers weren’t very different than my own—Great schools, beautiful parks and homes, and safe neighborhoods in which to raise their families.   

I have always been fascinated by intersection of sports, race and politics.  I know for many sports is a place to escape and just appreciate athleticism or root zealously for their team.  Perhaps for them “Shut Up and Dribble” resonates. For me, the athletes I admire the most—those closest to being heroes have walked that tightrope.

For me, no one has stood taller than Arthur Ashe.  I grew up playing tennis and truth be told Ashe’s prime was already behind him by the time I began paying attention to tennis players like McEnroe, Borg, Connors and Lendl.  But Ashe was still sort of around most notably as Davis Cup captain for the USA team. And also as an activist; an early voice denouncing apartheid in South Africa.

Beyond that Arthur Ashe was super cool. Sort of Obama before Obama.  As Davis Cup captain, his attempts to reign in the volatile behavior of McEnroe (always) and Connors (on the few occasions he was willing to play for his country) were a struggle.  But with Ashe it was clear winning wasn’t everything; how you played the game, how you represented your country were equally if not more important than the outcome. That is why what happened in the Women’s US Open final, played on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court was all the more remarkable.

Serena Williams was attempting to win another grand slam title, her first since taking time off to become a mother.  Her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was seeking her first grand slam title at the age of twenty. I had seen enough of Osaka’s play earlier in the tournament to know this had the chance to be a really competitive match.

The young Osaka was the better tennis player that day, but unfortunately the match won’t be remembered for the outstanding tennis.  It will be remembered instead by the controversy between Serena and the umpire of the match. By the time the match ended, Serena had been imposed with three conduct penalties the last of which included a one game penalty that all but sealed the match for Osaka.  

But on this day, Serena was no champion (or was she a champion of some bigger cause?).  Her behavior closer resembled McEnroe than it did Ashe. And that seemed part of Serena’s frustration—that she was being treated differently because she is a woman.  What went unsaid was that perhaps she was being treated differently because she is a black woman.

Although the initial conduct penalty was for coaching which in her mind branded her a cheater.  The penalty stemmed from her coach’s actions, who admitted the infraction and so if anyone was cheating it was him, but that may be splitting hairs.

Her frustration mounted as the match continued.  Osaka had an answer for every shot Serena threw at her.  Eventually causing Serena to smash her racquet after losing her service game for which she earned her second conduct penalty.  As the next game began, Osaka began the game already leading 15-0. Serena was surprised to be assessed a penalty point as perhaps she believed the umpire had rescinded the initial conduct penalty for coaching, but he had not.  Serena’s frustration grew as her composure deteriorated.

The third conduct penalty was assessed after Serena called the umpire a thief.  Serena believed the umpire had stolen a point from her when assessing the second conduct penalty (mostly because she didn’t think she deserved the first conduct penalty).  Serena was shocked that her “tame” outburst caused a third conduct penalty and with it an automatic one game penalty. So instead of being down a set and 4-3 in the second set she was now down 5-3 and Osaka needed just one more game to win the match.

Remarkably, Serena regained her composure to hold her serve to make it 5-4.  More remarkably, the young Osaka calmly held her serve one last time and she was US Open Champion.  The two champions met at the net as the crowd booed—this was no way to celebrate your first Grand Slam title.  A feat all the more impressive because of who she beat.

In her mind, Serena wasn’t just standing up for herself, but all women, and as a new mother for her daughter.  It was if she wanted to create a record that her daughter could look back to and see her mother didn’t just accept injustice, but stood up and fought it.  And I think that is worth admiring—we should all be doing more of that in our lives when we see it.

Not too long ago I was in the check out line at the grocery.  The man in front was holding a plastic bag with groceries in it and was just buying one item which he indicated he had forgotten to buy when he checked out previously.  The cashier asked to see his receipt for the items he already bought indicating it was the store policy to do so. The man walked out without buying that additional item.  He was a black man.

I wish I had walked out with him.  Or at least asked the cashier if she would have done the same to me.  Even if she had said yes, at least I would have made her think about it.  Instead, I rationalized that I had spent the last hour picking out all these groceries and I didn’t want to start over somewhere else.  I checked out, paid my bill and walked out without saying a word. I failed my community that day.

Standing up (or kneeling) for injustice can be inconvenient and uncomfortable.  I guess that is why I admire it so much when I see others taking on these burdens.  The moderator of the EQUAL UA event reminded the mostly white audience that we too have obstacles in our lives we have to overcome, but those obstacles don’t exist because we are white.  People of color face obstacles in ways its hard for me to conceptualize, but on those rare occasions when I am confronted with it, I need to do better, I need to take a stand or say something.  I hope next time I won’t just Shut Up and Dribble.

Serena’s behavior over-shadowed what should have been a celebration of women’s tennis and the rise of a new, deserving champion. Serena’s behavior also has led many to consider or reconsider the double standards that exist for woman and people of color as athletes and more broadly in our society.  Perhaps there is a lesson for our local community as we reconcile the history of UA with the goals of groups like EQUAL UA to make UA a more tolerant and welcoming place.  A worthy endeavor indeed.