Speaking Out of Turn: Five Thoughts on the “Audible Obscenity” Rule

This piece was published on the (apparently-defunct) Tennis Space in May 2013.  I was inspired to re-post it this week by a scene at the ATP tournament in Vienna, where Viktor Troicki had another of his infamous meltdowns.

After what he perceived to be a bad call to put him down a break-point in the first, Troicki made his displeasure known to the lines-person, Chair Umpire Timo Janzen, and his more experienced colleague Cédric Mourier, who was watching from the sidelines.  Upon losing the set, 6-4, Troicki had a further outburst—unlike the first, however, these complaints were both mostly directed toward a sympathetic member of his team and in Serbian.  As he walked to his chair, Troicki was followed by a line judge, who seems to have reported that the Serb’s yelling included some choice curses; only then does the umpire call him for a code violation.  Given how this incident was resolved, have matters improved over the past three years?

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In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb.  After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue.  While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst—or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes—nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate.  In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalized for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?

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1.  Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behavior and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis.  In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match.  The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at Slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court.  As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players.  Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.

2.  While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it.  With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done.  We witnessed just how complicated—albeit entertaining—it can be earlier this year in Miami, when Chair Umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.”  Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic.  (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives.)  If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.

3.  The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward.  Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule.  Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it?  Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behavior”?  Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing—at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands—doesn’t matter.  As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.

4.  Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand.  (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behavior.)  Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience.  But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy.  Even in Davis and Fed Cup, there are limits.  While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators.  To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.

5.  Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments.  First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations.  Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colorful verbiage.  What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect.  Almost without exception, players curse—they’re human, like the rest of us.  And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.”  By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack.  Sound fair?

Kiki: “Sport is in our blood”

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Before her breakout run to the US Open quarterfinals, Kristina Mladenović was kind enough to talk to me in the players garden behind Arthur Ashe stadium.  Our conversation was published in Serbian by B92; an extended English version is posted at Tennis Translations.  Her wins in New York will earn the Franco-Serbian player a new career-high singles ranking of #28.

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Photos by Christopher Levy.

Nick Kyrgios and Casual Sexism

First and foremost, let me say here what I’ve said elsewhere: sexism isn’t only something men do to women; it’s a cultural condition to which none of us is immune.  When sexism is put to a good beat, as in the songs mentioned below, I bob my head right along with it. So, it certainly isn’t a problem unique to Nick Kyrgios.  That I’m responding to his now-infamous outburst in the Coupe Rogers match against Stan Wawrinka is a function of two things: its being a conveniently brief and illustrative statement to unpack; and the lack of attention to the sexism that undergirds it.  Although ESPN’s Pete Bodo wrote a piece in which he refers to Kyrgios’ sexism, he didn’t explain why he judged the comments to be not only generically “demeaning and disrespectful” but also “misogynistic.”  To me, Krygios’ comments are garden-variety casual sexism, made worse by the public setting and the specificity of their target.  Having said that, I still think they’re worth analyzing—especially because this sort of thing is so insidious, it can be hard to see.

I’m not going to address the first unsavory comment that Kyrgios made on court in Montreal—“He’s banging an 18-year old”—in detail, except to say that Wawrinka’s sex life is none of our business unless psychological abuse or a criminal act is being committed.  Only Kyrgios knows what bothers him about the discrepancy in age between the Swiss player and his current partner—if she is, indeed, that.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s not necessary to know their relationship status or even her identity to explore the troubling, and all too common, assumptions behind the Australian’s words.  Nor is it necessary for Kyrgios to have intended to convey all of what I discuss below: language is a living, individual thing, but it’s also a social thing with a long history.  The words we use both reflect and shape our shared existence.  In this case, one of the key features of our existence is patriarchy—and women’s traditional position within it.  Even if some of these traditions are things of the past, their legacy lingers on.

Without further ado, the offending statement: “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend.  Sorry to tell you that, mate.”  Leaving aside the very public breach of several people’s privacy (a major issue) and the feigned concern of the sarcastic apology (a minor one), what’s the problem here?  Well, there are several.  In using this bit of information to rile or retaliate against his opponent, Kyrgios clearly intended to insult Wawrinka.  But why would this apparent “fact” be insulting unless one believed that the aforementioned girlfriend’s prior sexual activity were both Wawrinka’s business and somehow dishonorable?  (For the sake of narrowing the discussion, I’m not going to entertain the possibility that the young Aussie was informing his elder opponent about his partner’s infidelity, though that could certainly be another way to humiliate someone.)  Perhaps unwittingly, both the comment and the response play into many age-old, overlapping stereotypes and assumptions about women and sex.

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1) Woman as Object
Whether as a trophy to display, a spoil of war or other forms of conquest, an acquisition, or an item of exchange between men (e.g., father and husband in a marriage ceremony), women have long been regarded as men’s property.  Kyrgios perpetuates this notion by informing Wawrinka of his girlfriend’s activity and expecting him to be upset about it.  Note that Stan the Man obliged, perhaps defending his territory.  Like I said, sexism affects us all.

Further, in this instance, a woman is being used to mediate relations between two men.  All the stranger, then, that Kyrgios employs his pal Thanasi Kokkinakis as a proxy.  Although it wouldn’t be much better if he’d said, “I banged your girlfriend,” it’d be slightly more understandable because more direct.  Despite the pseudo-concern or judgment evinced by “He’s banging an 18-year old,” the unnamed but easily identified girlfriend and her feelings—her status as a subject—are irrelevant here.  Make no mistake: this is all about men and hetero-masculinity.

Simpler times: Kyrgios & Wawrinka shake hands at the Queens Club.

Simpler times: Kyrgios & Wawrinka shake hands at the Queens Club.

2) Woman as Passive
In phrasing things the way he did, Kyrgios taps into the longstanding but misguided belief that sex is something men do to women—in this case, his pal did the “banging.”  The sentence hardly connotes a sense of the female partner’s agency, does it?

3) Sex as Shameful
The colorful verb Kyrgios chose, as well as suggesting violence, signals less than respect or support for the woman’s participation in this presumably mutual act.  Nor does it imply a reciprocity of feeling—or, indeed, much feeling at all.  For a woman to have sex under these circumstances is apparently tantamount to degrading herself: it’s shameful in itself and also devalues her on the relationship market.  Were it not for that, this line couldn’t be used as an insult.  The girlfriend is being presented as damaged goods: she is, per today’s consumer euphemism, “previously owned.”  This is meant to humiliate Wawrinka because he’s getting what another man has already “used.”

By responding how he did, observing that “What was said I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy,” the Swiss unintentionally endorses this set of assumptions—albeit in a benevolent way.  Imagine if, instead of defending his girlfriend’s honor, Wawrinka rejected the faulty premise that there is anything to defend.  It’s possible, after all, to think Kyrgios crossed both moral and behavioral lines without believing or acting like he revealed something shameful.

4) Virgin-Whore Dichotomy
Both the comment about the girlfriend’s age and the subsequent dig get at the notion that female adults are either innocents or fallen women; alternately, they can be mothers or. . . not.  Essentially, a single, sexually active woman is a problem: sex should be for procreation or not at all.  This is one reason why Sex and the City was considered ground-breaking television.  The “girl you take home to mom” is unlikely to be a Samantha Jones: for those unfamiliar with the character, a woman who’s “been around.”  Historically, female virtue has been tied, in a limiting way, to sexual activity—or, to be more precise, a lack thereof.  To qualify as “wife material,” women were (and, in some cultures, still are) expected to be abstinent until marriage, while single men are free, as the saying goes, to “sow their wild oats.”  Although many believe women’s elevated moral stature is a product of nature, further cultivated by their traditional nurturing and restricted activities within the private sphere, the expectation of purity is historically rooted in property and inheritance: women’s chastity and fidelity ensure any family wealth is passed down to a legitimate heir.

This dichotomy goes back at least as far as the Bible (think of the Virgin Mother’s immaculate conception), was identified as the source of a complex by Freud, and, of course, gave pop star Madonna much of her iconic material.  More recently, as the poet

Ludacris suggests, men want both/and: a “lady in the street but a freak in the bed” (a phrase he’s fond enough of to have used in multiple songs ).  The Pussycat Dolls’ best-known song also perpetuates contemporary versions of the dichotomy and makes a competition between women for male attention explicit.  The “freak” represented by the Dolls is hot, raw, and fun.  The girlfriend?  All we know about her is that she loves her man.  Their lyrics may involve a reversal of the original split, one which instead puts a sexualized woman on a pedestal, but it still traps women in a false dilemma.  Are these really the only two options?

5) Double Standard: Stud versus Slut
Although it is likely embarrassing for Kokkinakis to have his sexual activity announced to the world without his permission, it’s pretty clear that he’s not the target of his friend and Davis Cup teammate’s comment.  “The Kokk,” unlike the girlfriend involved, didn’t do anything wrong.  In fact, it’s safe to say that “banging” an attractive young woman is widely viewed as an accomplishment, a notch on his racquet handle.  Not so, of course, for the woman in question, whose reputation is sullied by the making public of this information.  Should it be?  Of course not.  But take a look at a certain young WTA player’s Twitter mentions and you’re likely to see more abuse than support.  Whether Kyrgios endorses or even understands all the connotations his comment carries doesn’t matter: his statement was intended and received as a slight because that’s how this stuff works.

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To end at the beginning: attitudes like this—and behavior that reinforces them—don’t constitute a problem for Nick Kyrgios alone.  He’s a product of a sexist culture: not the ATP and not Australia, but a world still recovering from centuries of patriarchy.  If we’re going to fight sexism, we’ll have to do more than point fingers at him.