September 18, 2019

Doing the Right Thing Is Still a Good Choice

Not long ago, I caused a bit of consternation in my modest social media world when I suggested that there might be another way to look at Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, other than as a strong and brave feminist icon. I pointed out that she had an adulterous affair with a married man whose wife had just given birth and Daniels hadn’t done a damn thing about it until circumstances created an opportunity for her to leverage a little blackmail gelt. In doing so, and by keeping the money and failing to go public about the payoff in real time, she became uniquely complicit in the corruption of a U.S. presidential election. She didn’t appear to me to be doing the right thing.  

More recently, at the U.S. Open, Serena Williams demanded the head of an umpire who had the temerity to enforce the rules. First, the umpire warned her (for receiving coaching), then he docked her a point (for racket abuse) and, finally, he penalized her a game after her verbal outburst toward him became abusive (she called him “a thief,” among other things). She went on to lose the U.S. Open match, a Grand Slam final — 6-2, 6-4 — and received minor fines for each infraction.  

Williams immediately made this a “feminist” cause celebre, arguing that no male player would be treated the same way. She said the umpire’s taking a game away for her calling him “a thief” was “sexist.” Tennis icon Billie Jean King jumped to Williams’ defense, tweeting: “When a woman is emotional, she’s [considered] ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions.”

After the tennis match, Williams’ coach admitted he had been “coaching on every point” by signaling to her from his seat in the stands, even though coaching is strictly prohibited in Grand Slam events. “Everyone does it,” he said. However, after having been thumped in the first set by her opponent, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, and even after the first warning, Williams was leading, 3-1, and in control of the second set — but apparently not of herself. So, it was the 37-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam victor who melted down and cost herself the match, and it was first-time champion Osaka who had her moment in the sun stolen by the player she idolized, a player who also went on to tell the umpire, “You will never, ever, be on a court of mine as long as you live.” Interestingly, in the age of the #MeToo movement, that kind of threat should sound ironically familiar here in Los Angeles, where it almost always comes from men of power, directed at women of less power.  

It would seem, then, that perhaps it’s power, not gender, that rules our emotions. And when we lose control of ourselves, even the best of us will say and do the worst things.

Williams is probably the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, and those of us who are huge sports fans have applauded her exploits for two decades. Just the fact that she was out there in a Grand Slam final at the age of 37 — not to mention a year after giving birth and after multiple surgeries for blood clots — testifies to her fortitude and skill.

“Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just abided by the rules and the rules were uniformly enforced?”

But she screwed up. She didn’t become “hysterical,” just as in all the years John McEnroe berated officials did I hear anyone refer to him as “outspoken.” He was a “brat” and a “jerk” and, by the way, he defaulted his way out of the 1990 Australian Open, a Grand Slam event, for an escalating variety of abuse toward an umpire. And it’s not Williams’ first time violating the abuse rules. In her 2009 semifinal match at the U.S. Open, she lost on a penalty point after berating a lineswoman.

In the cases involving Daniels and Williams, people will continue to debate who did the right thing. Was it Daniels for standing up to Donald Trump after the election, or should she have told what she knew when it might have made a difference in whom would govern the land? Was it Williams for standing up for herself, or the umpire for upholding the rules and not allowing himself to be abused?

Daniels broke no laws. She sued Donald Trump to get out from under a nondisclosure agreement she believed was negotiated in bad faith; just because the target of her actions is Trump doesn’t make it right. For Williams, she broke the rules and then doubled down and made her violations worse. There’s a rule against coaching during Grand Slam events. Is “everybody does it” a reasonable defense? Did it work with your mom and dad when you were 12? Probably not. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just abided by the rules and the rules were uniformly enforced? Heck, in golf, an official walks the course with every group, and if he misses something, the players call the penalties on themselves.  

We just concluded observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the former we say it is written, and on the latter it is sealed. We think about the life we lived in the previous year, the decisions we made, how we treated people, what kind of success we prioritized, and to what extent we lived up not to our own expectations but the expectations of halachic-based rules — objective standards set for us, not by us. We ask not to be judged according to what other people did or did not do but by what we did or did not do in the eyes of God, and we promise to try to do better in the next year.

Those are tough rules, and the best of us fall short every year — which doesn’t make the aspiration any less valuable or the rules any less important.

Mitch Paradise is a writer-producer and teacher in Los Angeles.