Thursday, December 17, 2015

In defense of the horse defenders

Waking up Monday to the news of Serena Williams' Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year (SOTY) award was awesome. The photo accompanying the announcement, showing Serena at her sultry, powerful best, only cemented the positivity I felt. How great to see the sport I obsess over honored like this! How great to see the player at the pinnacle of that sport -- a black woman in her mid-30s no less -- celebrated as the icon that she is!

It was particularly nice to see her win given that the day before, American Pharoah was named the winner of the meaningless online Sportsman of the Year poll. I'm not a fan of horse racing anyway, and it saddened me that tennis again would be ignored despite the remarkable 2015 accomplishments of both Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic. Particularly Serena, whose Americanness and previous career accomplishments should have helped tip the scales in her favor.

But then Serena won the real award, given by the Sports Illustrated editors, and all felt right.

Yes, there was some backlash from fans of American Pharoah. And to me, this was completely understandable! The horse did have an incomparable year, what with winning the Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup Classic, and he did come out on top of the online poll. There are people who love horse racing as much as I love tennis. God bless them. To each their own.

Then the LA Times put out its tweet.

I tweeted a few things about the ensuing controversy, suggesting that the LA Times was getting an unfair rap. After all, it was Sports Illustrated who had made the horse the candidate -- blame them if you don't think a horse should have been in the running for the award. Despite the jarring visual, the underlying question they were asking was a reasonable one: did the Sports Illustrated editors get it "right," or did the fans (in an admittedly unscientific poll)?

Yet so many tweets on my timelines seemed to suggest that just bringing up that question was tantamount to racism. That got me to pondering the matter, but I didn't comment further.

Then yesterday I read Brittney Cooper's Salon article, "The truth about Serena and Amarican Pharaoh (sic): Here's the real reason why the comparison is so insulting" and was finally motivated to write down my thoughts. Because I have issues.

Let me preface this by saying that Professor Cooper's article has some fantastic insights; it should be read closely, ruminated on, and taken to heart. She did an excellent job of explaining why it's incredibly problematic, and highly offensive to so many, to make an unnuanced one-to-one comparison between a black athlete and a horse. (To do so on the occasion of one of said athlete's greatest honors is even more messed up.) For the LA Times (and me) not to have recognized that immediately is pretty awful. (The author, Chuck Schilken, has since apologized.)

But there were other elements of her article that were not so fantastic.

First, there were the factual errors. Besides misspelling the horse's name throughout (a minor error to be sure) there were the inaccuracies in listing Serena's accomplishments. That Serena achieved "an unprecedented record of consecutive grand slam wins" is demonstrably false (see: M. Navratilova), as is the claim that Venus is the "only" player older than Serena in Grand Slam draws (this has never been the case; see: F. Schiavone). Other claims demanded but did not get qualifications, whether era-based or gender-based or both: (1) that she is the "only tennis player ever to have won all four slams consecutively twice" (see: R. Laver), (2) that Steffi Graf is the "only player to ever accomplish the Calendar Grand Slam" (see: D. Budge et al.), and (3) that Graf is the player with the most Grand Slam titles (see: M. Court). These are not huge quibbles, but they make up the bulk of Professor Cooper's argument in favor of Serena. It would be good to get them right.

My second issue was her misrepresentation of the LA Times article. Professor Cooper accuses Schilken, of "coming dangerously close to making an argument that Serena Williams bested American Pharaoh ... because of affirmative action" and wrote that Schilken suggested that "the horse is at a disadvantage for this award because a horse can’t experience racism." That's a huge stretch. Schilken quite fairly explained why Serena exhibited certain human qualities that a horse could never exhibit. Those human qualities quite explicitly included dealing with the racism that Serena confronts. Did having those human qualities disqualify the horse from receiving the award? Not according to Sports Illustrated, which made him a candidate. But without question it weighed the scales against him. I think it was in fact incumbent on Schilken to point that out. Professor Cooper chose to take his quote out of context to lambast him.

Then there were the semantic problems. First and foremost was Professor Cooper's categorical assertion that "Horses cannot be sportspersons of the year." Which, of course, is accurate, but which elides the point that the award in question wasn't initially for "sportsperson" of the year, but rather for "sportsman" of the year, despite the fact that the field of candidates included several women. It was only called "sportsperson" because Serena won.

None of the horse defenders I've seen have seriously claimed that American Pharoah is a "person." Yet Professor Cooper devotes a significant chunk of her article chastising those supporters as if they didn't understand the distinction -- without even mentioning that it was Sports Illustrated itself that made the horse one of its finalists. In fact, a horse could have been "sportsWhatever" of the year. It was their award, after all. Sure, a huge number of people would have bemoaned the choice for all sorts of reasons. But it could have happened.

So the underlying conceit of Professor Cooper's broader argument -- that any and all support for the horse serves as an attempt to diminish black people's humanity -- is to me a nonstarter. Which brings me to my final issue with the Salon article: her accusation that to support American Pharoah's SOTY candidacy is necessarily to traffic in racism.

I want to be very clear here: there is a LOT of anti-black racism in the USA. White supremacy, after all, is part of America's Id. It hasn't gone away, as nearly any comments section will prove. And racism -- both conscious and unconscious -- informs much of what is thought and written about Serena Williams. Pointing this out will never be wrong.

But Professor Cooper went farther than that. She wrote, "Still, many commenters spent their time this week actually debating the merits of a horse receiving a 'sportsperson of the year' award. It is only the curiosity that is American racism, which demands that we actually defend Williams’ victories against the accomplishments of one animal."

"It's is only the curiosity that is American racism," she asserts.


Professor Cooper here denies that a fair debate on the merits of American Pharoah's 2015 vs. Serena Williams' 2015 can even take place because to do so is racist.  This is different than the promise of the article's subheading -- that such a debate shouldn't take place without taking into consideration our "racial and political context," an argument I find compelling. Instead she avers that "only" racism can motivate the horse defenders.

Here I will note that American Pharoah didn't just beat out Serena Williams in the online poll. He also beat out the Kansas City Royals. He beat out Lionel Messi. He beat out Steph Curry. He beat out Jordan Spieth. He beat out Simone Biles. He beat out Novak Djokovic. He beat out Carli Lloyd. And all these candidates beat out Serena Williams, by a lot. (American Pharoah got fifty times the number of online votes that Serena did. That's astounding, scientific or not.) Serena was an outstanding choice for Sportsperson of the Year. But she was anything but an undebatable choice.

Professor Cooper ignores these other candidates as if the larger debate was always and only about Serena and the horse. But to most of the horse defenders, it never was.

Is there any doubt that these same (predominantly white) horse defenders would have been up in arms had anyone else won? If nothing else, the 47% of the online vote her garnered assures that there was a lot of passion motivating his supporters. Would they really have been any less agitated had Djokovic, or Spieth, or Lloyd claimed the award?

Moreover, of course the disgruntled would compare the various candidates' years. It's what you do in any such inter-sports debate -- you go to the stats. That does not mean that they are somehow arguing for a horse's humanity, or in denial of the humans' humanity.

I'm certainly not advocating that we don't use lenses of race or gender when discussing tennis or sports. Sports are cultural artifacts, after all. If you believe, as I do, that we have a social justice deficiency in this country, then we must work hard to understand how such forces inform how we discuss sports, sports awards, etc. I now believe that the LA Times' tweet -- their setting up Serena Williams against American Pharoah in a "horse race" -- was more than "jarring," more than problematic. It was indeed offensive. And I thank Professor Cooper for spelling out why.

But I also believe that the Times' underlying question -- did the Sports Illustrated editors make the right choice? -- was an utterly fair one. And more importantly, I believe that those people who tweeted their disappointment that their candidate didn't win deserve some slack.

Horse people are people, too.


  1. Great post! We need a longer tennis offseason just so that we can get some more semi-political commentary out of you!

  2. Thanks, Alex. I'm happy for the offseason tbh... nearly time to get back on the horse, though!

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