McEnroe: Serena's Outburst Was Fine

McEnroe approves of Serena Williams abusing official.

Posted Sep 13, 2009

John McEnroe is a much more attractive figure to me (and others) than he once was. Although his hair is thinner then when he first burst on the tennis scene as a cherubic teen, he is also thinner now. Most important, his violent tantrums on the court are not evident in his commentary in the broadcasting booth.

Naturally, we wonder about his attitude towards his former behavior. When he screamed at tennis officials in front of thousands in the stands and millions on TV, McEnroe justified his outbursts because of the errors the officials had obviously made. Indeed, he and others sometimes cited his fiery nature as a positive attribute.

So it was with great interest that I noted McEnroe's commentary when Serena Williams was penalized the final point in her match in the U.S. Open against Kim Clijsters. Williams first threatened to shove balls down the line judge's throat after the woman called a foot fault. She then approached within a few feet of the judge, shaking her racket and cursing the woman in what the Times described as a "shocking display of vitriol and profanity."

For his part, McEnroe and fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg criticized the official whom Williams berated, disagreeing Williams was guilty of a foot fault, then saying the official should never have enforced the rule at this point in the match. In other words, they justified Williams' actions. The third party in the booth, Mary Carillo, had to (twice) say Williams' behavior was unacceptable, which was never acknowledged by the boys.

Thus, we know that McEnroe maintains the same attitude towards anger management (that is, mismanagement) that he held as a teenager and a player.

For her part, Williams was equally self-justifying. We should first note that Williams had been warned about her conduct after losing the first set to Clijsters for slamming her racket to the ground then striking the net. In the French Open earlier this year, Williams threatened another player on court in what the Times called "a similar outburst." Clearly, this is characteristic behavior for Serena Williams. (Williams is 27 years old.)

Apology. People no longer know how to apologize, which is particularly noticeable among athletes, politicians, and entertainment figures. The only apology that occurred during the Williams outburst was Clijsters telling Williams she was sorry! During deliberations about her forfeiture, Williams irately claimed to officials she hadn't threatened the line judge. In the press conference that followed, Williams didn't apologize and made the following excuses: she was an intense player, she didn't remember what she did, other players behaved badly during the tournament, and other great players had acted just like she did - mentioning John McEnroe by name.

Models. McEnroe appeared taken aback and defensive after Williams cited him as one of the models for her behavior. Ironically, during a rain-delay earlier in the tournament, CBS showed an historic match at the Open between a youthful McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. Nastase was first penalized a point for misbehavior, then disqualified for refusing to continue playing. McEnroe commented watching the match that this was how he learned to behave the way he did!

Consequences. Of course, great tennis stars can't be eliminated from matches, because otherwise the match can't continue and the fans will be outraged. McEnroe boasted that he was only disqualified once in his career. In the Nastase-McEnroe match, the fans booed the chair umpire. In a decision that will go down in the history of bad behavior, the umpire was removed after he disqualified Nastase, and Nastase continued the match.

Parents. When approached outside the stadium, Serena's father, Richard Williams, snarled at reporters "Just get out of my face." Her mother, Oracene Price, defended Serena, "I think she should speak up for what is right." This reminds me of the attitude of "Congressman Liar" (Joe Wilson, R-SC ), who says he won't be muzzled from telling the truth after he was criticized for yelling "you lie" during President Obama's speech to Congress.

Therapy. When people beat their partners, they usually justify their behavior in terms of something the other person did. In the same way, McEnroe justified his - and Williams' - behavior because of errors by umpires. Thus, players never learn to curb their anger. Cognitive behavior therapy for athletes might involve the following discussion:

Therapist: What determines where a ball is hit or a player's actions during a game?

Player: What actually occurred.

T: What if there's a disagreement?

P: The official determines - but they can be wrong.

T: Yes, but why do we have an official?

P: To make the final call.

T: Otherwise. . . ?

P: Otherwise there would be fights and we'd never finish the game.

T: So what determines what "really" happened on the court?

P: What the official says happens.

T: Good. Now what should happen if you continue to argue with the official?

P: I guess they have to tell me to stop, or else kick me out.

T: Can you write that down, and whenever you keep arguing with an official, I'm going to ask you to read these words back to me.

Unless I miss my guess, this is not what will happen in Serena Williams' case, as I guess it never happened with John McEnroe. Rather her entourage will continue to support her point of view, and she will feel justified in continuing to act this way.

P.S.  Catch the comments on this post, which sound like the first session of a court-ordered spousal abuse class (my responses in parentheses): it was clearly a bad call - Serena was right to be upset (Serena should have slapped that bitch silly), the Times article saying Serena displayed the same behavior in the French Open is wrong ("I didn't beat my former girlfriend too - I just mussed her up a little"), a player doesn't need to submit to anger management because of a questionable call ("I don't need therapy - she had it coming"), why pick on tennis players instead of baseball and hockey players ("all my friends beat their wives worse"), Serena has always had to deal with unfair critics ("all my girlfriends put me down"), as she pushes herself mentally and physically through this match, do you expect her to be the ambassador of etiquette even in the face of incompetence? ("after I worked all day, the bitch didn't have dinner ready - of course I beat the sh__ out of her"). 

The larger psych question is - what do we know about assisting people to avoid compulsively bad ("out-of-control") behavior that has negative consequences for them: SW was fined $10,000 as well as losing a point and match, and most people don't like to read about their "shocking display of vitriol and profanity" on the front page of the Times. To this day, McEnroe recoils at mention of his former bad behavior. He's not proud of his former self in this area - he does, after all, have children.

And there is a link between the public's attitudes, the attitudes of advisers, and how individuals come to grips with their behavior. When people can say to themselves - "What I'm doing is justified," there is little chance of their modifying a behavior. Anger management (which is a part of both public displays of rage and spouse abuse) is about changing a person's internal reactions to events (how they see their behavior) by changing the support environment for the behavior (making them see the behavior is wrong).

This is what cognitive behavior therapy is - techniques for changing ways of thinking about things in order to change behavior. When spectators and fans say about drunken brawls, violence, and dog fights, "Well, football players are prone to these things - that's why we admire them," they are encouraging terribly detrimental behavior. You might even say - a la Roman gladiators - they are egging on this behavior.

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