Thursday, March 29, 2001 Updated: September 13, 6:37 PM ET
The eye of the beholder
By Ralph Wiley Page 2 columnist
Richard Williams is stuck in the '60s. But then again, so is Bob Dylan, and nobody hates him. Hell, Bob Dylan just won an Oscar for it. But Richard Williams, dad of Venus and Serena, is just winning some grief.
Richard Williams, with Venus, has realized his inspired vision of greatness for his daughters.
Mr. Williams is taking heat, big-time. Seems like he's begging for it, actually. "Bring it on," his actions often seem to say.
We all know the latest installment by now. At a tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., shortly before they were to play a semifinal match against each other, Venus Williams withdrew from hostilities against sister Serena, citing tendinitis in her knee. Two days later, when Richard showed up with his eldest daughter to watch Serena in the final, there was a loud, continuous, mean-spirited, shameless exhibition of booing, an outpouring of ill will unprecedented outside of the occasional national jingoistic display at Davis Cup matches in Ecuador or somewhere. The Wrath of Blonde had settled harshly upon the Williams clan.
A bunch of white folks booing his daughters -- there were some African-Americans and other minorities in the crowd, but it cannot be confirmed that they joined in -- merely for doing what he said? For being hurt? Showing up? For not wanting to take each other on at a second-tier tournament?
This was right in Richard's wheelhouse. He's ever ready to be offended by racism; though as often as racism comes up, you'd think he'd just take it as a given by now. But it's also his shtick, what he's known for, what he does. It fires his imagination and passion more than tennis. No doubt he has endured pain attributable to racism and bigotry and prejudice in his life -- and World, you are going to know about it. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Actually, once revenge arrives, it's inedible, indigestible; if you force it down, it's going to make you sick all over again, sicker than you were when first slighted.
There were many unpleasant occurrences in Richard Williams' life, I'm sure. But he endured. The man raised his daughters in some Compton (Calif.) hellhole and made a good deal out of it. Look at them. They are magnificent. So it follows that their father is a smart man, a planner, a doer, a get-up-and-go-getter, with stick-to-it-tiveness and other good traits we always wind up missing because he harbors his share of bitterness.
The one thing that always saw him through was Tomorrow. That, and the love he had for his daughters, Venus and Serena. He joined the two, Tomorrow and his daughters, in that singular inspired vision he had for them. They would become world champions in tennis. Genius! No doubt Richard was in some measure inspired by the examples of first Althea Gibson and then Arthur Ashe winning majors. For years, without fail, he set out on mornings when other people were slapping the snooze bar; he had the girls out there, family, learning together, how to move their feet, steam their backhands, stay composed.
Richard himself came not to care whether or not he kept his own composure. Not ever thinking that his actions might one day be used against his daughters. Not seeing he could wind up as big an opponent for them as the women on the other side of the net, or the people booing his family at Indian Wells.
Compare and contrast Richard with Earl Woods. Earl no doubt suffered just as many slights as Richard in his lifetime. And Earl was just as visible in the career of his son Tiger Woods, at first. He was at Augusta when Tiger won the Masters in '97, and so would you or I have been. But he laid out of the spotlight after that because he had raised Tiger to carry his own water. Tiger is 25 now, and handles his own business in public. Richard Williams has younger children. Serena, the youngest, is 19. She said, "Come on, I'm just a kid!" after the crowd pitilessly booed her at Indian Wells.
But once you sign for $20 mil with Avon, get on the cover of Elle, win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, you are no longer considered kids. You are public figures. And as such. ... well, ask a lawyer. You are fair game. So the world at large can pretty much say anything it wants to about you and be considered absent malice. That's life in the big city. Deal.
And that's the lesson Richard should be teaching now. But maybe he can't. Maybe he's too close. He's stuck with his own experiences, his own background. These are his daughters, for God's sake! Boo any man's daughter, see how he reacts. He is not going to be very understanding of it. In fact, boo a man's daughter with that man around, you'd better be prepared to step back and square off.
It is especially hard to come between a father and daughter on the professional or even the junior tennis tours, although sometimes it seems like that would be a good idea. Consider Stefano Capriati. Ten years ago he was the seemingly deranged father of a now re-born Jennifer Capriati. Or take the example of former French Open champ Mary Pierce's father. We don't want to go there, do we? Take the example of many vainglorious tennis fathers. The difference between them and Richard? He's not as bad as most. And he's black.
That's where the story gets complicated. And, frankly, more interesting. Color does seem to add spice.
The first thing to understand is that the new millennium is a complex one where racism is not the same as bigotry and prejudice. Racism can be fought and in many cases defeated, if not eradicated. But as a byproduct, almost a natural byproduct, bigotry and prejudice may not be eradicated, and in fact may rise.
And so Richard Williams is right. And wrong. And good. And bad. And understandable and a total enigma. And like many a fixated obsessive, be it in tennis fatherhood, or entertainment, or art, or science, or media, any phase of life, Richard Williams may be giving aid to the dragon he assumes he is helping to slay.
Richard Williams is becoming to racism as Mark Fuhrman was to detective work in the O.J. Simpson case.
Richard Williams is becoming to racism as Mark Fuhrman was to detective work in the O.J. Simpson case.
In Mr. Williams's great and sincere zeal for what he would call justice, he has become his own worst enemy. Mr. Williams heretically mentioned the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, comparing his political assassination with what happened to Serena, and also to Richard and Venus, at Indian Wells. Richard said some people in the stands said terrible things to him in the process -- "if it was '75, we'd skin you alive!" for one, according to Richard.
It would have been helpful to know which '75 -- 1775, 1875 or 1975. The last one is most preferable, 1975, the year a black man, Ashe, won at Wimbledon. Whoever this clown was could've picked a better year, couldn't he? Richard has not learned -- and neither have we -- that the only ways to take the play and power away from prejudice and bigotry are by ignoring it, avoiding it, or, if that's impossible, laughing at it as being ridiculous, which it is. And against the power of laughter, nothing can stand. The crowd at Indian Wells -- they were laughable.
Richard instead used old buzz words like "reacting non-violently," invoking both King and Malcolm X -- two icons, true, but not quite appropriate to this situation. Richard Williams's daughters' problem is not getting into the arena: It's staying there.
Dr. King was assassinated. But now Alcatel Americas, the American arm of a French company dealing in data voice networks, does business using King in commercials, with the King estate's blessing, running that arresting TV spot where a computerized image of King giving his famous I Have A Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial is digitially arranged so that it appears no one but a few sea gulls are listening. People can say (and have said) that the King family is wrong to do this with the image of an icon, but as Michael Eric Dyson said to the Washington Post, at least Alcatel wasn't using the imagery "to sell coffee-makers and switchblades."
Being assassinated is worse than being booed. If the King family can turn around and still do business, then why can't Richard? The war's over. The man didn't die in vain. Guess what? He won. Things changed, but Richard hasn't. He suffers from the worst kind of Stockholm Syndrome -- a need of the hijacked to stay hijacked. It seems to make him comfortable for people to reveal themselves as bigots. It's like he doesn't want to get past it.
The Civil Rights Movement of the '60s was a little war, a noble war, for right or wrong, whichever you believe it to be. It doesn't matter, because sooner or later all wars end and countries that were at war agree to co-exist and eventually find a way to do business. Soon, a different brand of commerce, competition and human reaction begins.
The Japanese are now great trade partners, selling many fine products and doing business freely in the U.S., and when they intermarry their children are money-obsessed Yankees just like the rest of us. Ditto the Germans. It doesn't matter if they had relatives that died at Bergen-Belsen or Hiroshima, or if you or I had kin who bought it at Pearl Harbor or Normandy.
Now people go to Vietnam on business and say the streets of Saigon are breathtakingly clean, and the Vietnamese people are friendly, and in a very good mood. The very same Vietnamese whose fathers -- and mothers -- made punji sticks sharp enough to go through the boot of a doomed G.I., or who became human anti-personnel bombs. Life goes on.
Many good people died in all those good and bad wars, and yes, often the wars were utterly mad, without reason other than fear and profit. Just as many people died in this hemisphere due to racism. It is often said a war has not intruded on the Americas, except the Civil War. What they don't say as often is how long that civil war went on. For some reason (real racism?) there weren't enough good lawyers to go around, but still, Richard was smart enough to get his daughters reparations in spite of the bleatings of David Horowitz.
Mr. Williams and David Horowitz, author of a recent college newspaper sensation -- "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too" -- are stuck in the '60s. Horowitz we can't help. He's a writer. He's doomed. But memo to Richard: The landscape has changed, Horowitz's transparencies notwithstanding.
Racism is a systemic denial of benefit and opportunity and entry and egress to public and private facility, usually accompanied by a complete or near-complete economic exploitation of the same laboring class, caste, race, age group, gender. That can be grappled with.
Richard himself did it, the way having been paved not only by Gibson and Ashe, but also Evonne Goolagong, Chip Hooper, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, MaliVai Washington, and many others. Racism does not allow you into the arena to display your wares, or to be compensated for them if the wares are acceptable.
By this definition Richard and Venus and Serena are not the victims of racism right now, this minute, and to say that they are -- with their multimillion-dollar purses and multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts with cosmetics firms and magazine covers -- is on the surface absurd and leaves them open to psychological rebuttals, if not outright attacks, by the shrewd and the manipulative.
These would include the Williams's sister most skillful foil, Martina Hingis, who told USA Today: "(Racism in tennis is) total nonsense to me. I definitely don't feel that there is any racism on the tour. Because (the Williams sisters) may be black, they have a lot of advantages to be where they are because they can always say it's racism or something like that, and it's not the case at all."
And of course Venus had to fire back, saying, "I don't think racism is junk at all."
Both are right, in their own way.
Hingis' comment was not intended as sociology. She plays tennis, and seeks an edge. There's great comp between her and the Williamses, as epic as King-Navratilova, Navratilova-Evert. That competition should be the focus of the Williams sisters. They simply can't take on every bigot in the world. Well, they could, and probably beat every one of them at tennis, but there simply isn't time for that. The tennis world isn't going to roll over for them in the meantime.
It is Martina Hingis vs. Serena -- and Lindsay Davenport vs. Venus -- that makes the tennis world go 'round. Now run and boo that. Men are sheep by comparison. To watch the power, velocity, and court coverage of a match between Venus and Davvy certainly does not leave the eye pining for a match between any two of the current crop of men. Hingis knows she's the best all-around all-court woman in the world, until -- unless -- one or both Williams sisters passes her. It is good theater in and of itself.
Note to Richard: The answer? Let it be.
At the same time, everybody knows that Martina Hingis could've done everything short of wearing a swastika on her bloomers and no crowd like the one at Indian Wells would have booed her as heartlessly as Serena, Venus and Richard were booed. So while Hingis's point is well-taken, she also knows Richard -- not so much Serena and Venus, but Richard, and then, by declension, the daughters -- will be frustrated by her remarks. That is why she made them. She couldn't care less about the Williamses getting booed.
Miranda Massie is not Martina Hingis. Massie is an admirable, young lawyer, who happens to be a white woman, too. She is set on a completely different mission from Martina Hingis -- or Richard Williams, for that matter. Massie fights against real racism, by defending the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan Law School against censure and challenge, to the Supreme Court, fighting with every fiber of her being, talent and intellect. Fighting because she knows affirmative action policies at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School were overturned and minority rep at the school for blacks went from over 20 incoming would-be lawyers to only eight.
She knows the "stigma" of affimative action is a canard, nothing compared to the stigma of being a minority applying to law school in the first place. Massie calls the ongoing myth of black or Latino intellectual inferiority the baseless con it is. Yet we've established a dearth of black lawyers, for some reason. So Miranda Massie is trying to rectify or improve that situation, even though she is up against more racism than the Williams sisters are. Massie could tell Hingis that racism is ... very real.
You're not going to eradicate prejudice and bigotry because you can't stop the total tragedy of the human experience. You can't legislate what is created or mis-created in people's hearts because of it. Somebody's out there right now reading this on ESPN.com Page 2 who is not digging it too cool, not digging that we're having this conversation, who'll soon be e-mailing the Wrecking Crew on ESPN's Page 2 wishing me and Richard Williams both would go to hell on the next express train.
But here's the code key: Whoever says it won't be talking about me, or Mr. Williams. He'll be talking about himself, speaking from his frustrations, limitations, regrets, scar tissue. Just as Richard Williams spoke after the Indian Wells Incident. That's what makes it human nature. That's why it is immutable. We were made that way. Fallible. Flawed. Susceptible to our baser instincts and histories. We must all fight against those instincts, like the desire for revenge.
The battle for truth and justice is ongoing and a different battle now, a battle requiring genius -- a Tiger, not an Earl; a Venus, a Serena, not a Richard. Tomorrow beats yesterday. There was a time when Mr. Williams knew that better than just about anybody.
But he's still in the game. The game is right now. All that matters now is what happens now. Right now, it's the Ericsson Open, and the finals loom. Soon it will be time for the French, for Wimbledon, then for the U.S. Open. The Williams sisters will be seeded in those places, likely quite highly. So will Hingis. And so will Davenport. They'll compete. Somebody will win, somebody will lose. Somebody will be gracious, somebody will be obnoxious, and in the end it won't matter. They're all in the arena, together, baby.
Real King aficionados know the I Have A Dream speech can't touch the hem of the garment of the I've Been To The Mountaintop Speech, delivered the night before King was assassinated:
I may not get there with you;
but I want you to know tonight
that we as a people
will get to the Promised Land.
That's the mile we've come. Miles to go before we sleep. Not so many for Richard, David Horowitz, me, maybe you. But they'll still be here, Venus, Serena, your kid, mine. What do we want for them. This?
Richard Williams can forgive, or forget, or both, or neither, but what he has to definitely do is get out of the way.
Tomorrow, the future, has become the now. He has to put those two gorgeous young ladies (even if Elle magazine didn't shoot them that way) away from him, instead of out in front of him. He has to let them go.
They don't belong to him anymore. They belong to the future. Richard should not worry. They can handle it. He gave them that.
Now he has but one more lesson to teach them. How to withdraw gracefully.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."