Commentary

Not again: Mac's prattle of the sexes

McEnroe's words show he still doesn't have a highly evolved attitude toward women

Updated: August 29, 2010, 11:38 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Every once in a while John McEnroe says something that makes you wonder if that really was a headband he wore all those years playing tennis, or a tourniquet that cut off too much blood flow to his brain.

McEnroe seems like a smart guy, if not always a reasonable man. And yet, there he was on a conference call Thursday to advance CBS' coverage of the U.S. Open, once again saying something insulting about women.

This time McEnroe said the Women's Tennis Association schedule should be scaled back because female tennis players don't appear to be able to handle the mental and physical rigors of the game.

"I think that it's asking too much of the women," McEnroe said. "They shouldn't be playing as many events as the men. ... The women have it better in tennis than in any other sport, thanks to Billie Jean King. But you shouldn't push them to play more than they're capable of.

"They should be required to be in less events. There should be less events for the women. It seems it takes an actual meltdown on the court or women quitting the game altogether before they realize there's a need to change the schedule."

[+] EnlargeJohn McEnroe and Chris Evert
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images"I challenge that theory," Chris Evert said of the notion that women can't handle the rigors of the tennis schedule.

Considering the WTA already requires its top 10 players to play just 10 tour events this year, down from a minimum of 13 a year ago, and the tour also built a two-week break into its schedule immediately after Wimbledon and ends its season two weeks earlier than it used to, McEnroe's remarks aren't just demeaning. They're not backed by nuisances like the facts.

A WTA spokesperson said despite recent injuries plaguing some of the top women's players, player withdrawals from tournaments are markedly down overall.

"I just think it's rubbish," King said of McEnroe's comments. "I would just tell him he doesn't have his facts right. The game goes in cycles when it comes to things like injuries."

McEnroe would've created no problems if he had said injuries and the nearly year-round season have been a bane for both the men's and women's sides of the pro tour -- a point both Chris Evert and Andy Roddick independently emphasized Saturday.

Instead, McEnroe's point was that women are constitutionally lacking some important necessities -- which left Evert compelled to say, "I challenge that theory."

"Mentally, there are no differences in that area between men and women -- I think the history of great, mentally tough women players show that," Evert said via e-mail. "In our era, we played an average of 24 weeks. They now play maybe 18 weeks in 52! That is hardly overplaying. There is more money in the game, more exposure, more opportunities for these women. They, in turn, have a responsibility to train harder because the level of athleticism is higher and more intense.

"I just think what you do on your weeks off and how you manage your time on your weeks off -- i.e., balancing rest and training -- is a crucial component to your longevity."

Evert played more than 100 matches in her busiest year -- easily more than Roger Federer has ever packed into one season. Federer, who is seen as a modern-day iron man, just said he tries to play no more than 16 events a year, which is about the same as the oft-injured Williams sisters do in a good year.

King used to play a relentless schedule, but still had time to found the first women's professional tennis tour, create the first women's players union and rake in more than 20 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles. She played until she was 39.

Venus Williams just passed her 30th birthday -- meaning she's already played four years later in life than Bjorn Borg, McEnroe's great hero, did before Borg became so disgusted by losing to McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final he retired three months later at age 26.

Did that mean Borg lacked something physically or mentally that Venus, Evert and King all had?

The moral of this story isn't that even smart people like McEnroe can say dumb things sometimes. At this point in McEnroe's career, the point is McEnroe is a serial offender when it comes to chauvinistic ideas about women. And he deserves to be called on it when he lapses back into it. His schtick is beyond old.

As far back as 1993, the first year I covered the U.S. Open, McEnroe was criticized for saying women shouldn't be allowed to commentate on men's tennis matches, or vice versa, because, "How would men know what women are feeling at certain times of the month?"

At the time, Mary Carillo, McEnroe's former doubles partner and childhood pal from Queens, was working the tournament for CBS while McEnroe was toiling away on USA cable network, a lesser job. It must've bugged him.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King and John McEnroe
Al Bello/Getty Images"It's rubbish," Billie Jean King said of John McEnroe's comments.

McEnroe took a pretty good beating in the New York tabloids for his remarks. I particularly remember a columnist at the New York Daily News dropping a piano on McEnroe by calling him "just another jock has-been in a blue blazer" and "not even the best tennis announcer from Queens."

Carillo handled it just right, waving off McEnroe with a few pointed comments to reporters that her brother later recommended to their mother by saying, "Ma! You've got to read the papers today. Mary gelded the guy!"

And I -- again, being so new to covering tennis -- watched it all and joked that maybe McEnroe, as a Man who specialized in commentary on Men, could have put his energy to better uses. Like? How about explaining to his TV viewers why male tennis players have this peculiar insistence on calling their serves "big" when they mean "fast."

(Calling Dr. Freud, calling Dr. Freud ...)

McEnroe eventually began working for CBS and NBC as well. But years later he was frustrated when he couldn't bait one of the Williams Sisters -- preferably Serena -- into a money-making reprise of the Battle of the Sexes match between King and Bobby Riggs. McEnroe didn't like the flippant talk that the Williams sisters could play on the men's tour.

He lobbied hard to become the U.S. Davis Cup captain -- then quit in frustration just 18 months into his tenure. Some staying power.

He has never used the same gender criterion he's raised about female tennis analysts to recuse himself from commenting on women's matches.

So even if you don't agree that McEnroe's past remarks make him a full-bown sexist, how do you not agree that, at minimum, he's a hypocrite?

The problem with any -ism -- sexism, racism, jingoism, doesn't matter -- is the artificial ceiling it can set on people's opportunities, aspirations, just about everything, if such attitudes are allowed to take hold. Especially when the person pushing such ideas has the sort of power that McEnroe does.

McEnroe just opened a tennis academy on Randall's Island in New York City, and he has touted it as a place that is going to re-think how to produce the next generation of great tennis players.

Now, why would anyone send their daughter to McEnroe after reading what he really thinks she might not be able to do just because she's a girl?

"I hate the idea that we have to judge women on a curve and say, 'It's too much for them,'" Carillo said Thursday, speaking on the same conference call that McEnroe was on.

Just more proof why Carillo is still the best tennis announcer from Queens.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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