September is perhaps the most sporting month of the year in America, and usually provides some refuge from all the political and cultural squabbles that dominate the rest of the papers, but not this year.
This year the big story at the United States Open tennis championship was the women’s final singles match, which ended with a big brouhaha about sexism and racism. The professional football season started with the same acrimonious debate about free speech rights and proper respect for the national anthem that had already taken so much out of the past two seasons. Most of the baseball races in the big leagues have already been run, and around this double-A city our beloved Wichita Wingnuts have played their last-ever game in the gorgeous and history-laden Lawrence-Dumont Stadium that is scheduled for the bulldozer, which has the home folks arguing.
Not having followed tennis closely since way back when the undersized by scrappy Australian Rod Laver was winning his calendar Grand Slam sweep, we’ll not venture any strong opinions about what happened in the finals match between American Serena Williams and Japan’s Naomi Osaka. As even such casual fans as ourselves well know Williams has dominated her sport for the past couple of decades, but after the recent birth of a child and at the ripe old age of 36 her dominance is soon coming to and end, so fans were eager to see how she’d fare against an-up-coming who was three months old when Williams won her first Gland Slam title, but everyone hated out it turned out.
Youth proved better than experience in the first set, with Osaka racking up an easy win, but Williams has a long history of impassioned but calm comebacks in the second and third matches, and everyone was expecting another classic effort to tie Margaret Court’s record of 25 Grand Slam singles titles. The umpire made a couple of calls that annoyed Williams, one of them claiming she had illegally been getting coaching from the sidelines, which Williams took quite personally, and she wound up screaming loud and long at the referee and breaking her racket on the court and eventually getting penalized by two games, which put the set and match out of reach against such formidable competition.
A hard-earned win by either the aging superstar or the youthful newcomer who was playing against her life-long idol in her first Grand Slam final should have made for one of those corny feel-good stories we always look for on the sports pages, but in this case it ended for the aforementioned brouhaha about racism and sexism.
Some observers opined that tennis umpires routinely endure far worse verbal abuse from male players, and should extend the same courtesy to female players, while others suggested that the fact it was a strong black woman doing the screaming and racket-smashing might have had something to do with it. We don’t follow tennis closely enough to judge all the arguments about the calls or how commonly cheating violations are called or that particular umpire’s history of enduring verbal abuse from male players, but by now we’re all too familiar with the sexual and racial contretemps, so we’ll venture an admittedly ambivalent opinion that it’s much ado about nothing.
Ever since the days of America’s superstar tennis brats Jimmy Conner and Pat McEnroe those poor umpire’s in tall white chairs have indeed been putting up with a whole lot of verbal abuse from the male players, but we’d rather they stop doing that and start handing out game penalties rather than begin putting up with such nonsense from the fairer sex. Tennis is perhaps the most international and multiracial played on this increasingly interconnected globe, too, and in a match between a black woman and an Asian in front of an umpire with a Latin-sounding name, with Williams chasing a 25th Grand Slam title, it’s hard to imagine racism was much of a factor.
We fondly remember the days when tennis was a game of white shorts and shirts and friendly post-match handshakes and the most genteel standards of sportsmanship and decorum, with such great African-American champions as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe best exemplifying the best of it, and if tennis wants to return to that better era we wish the sport well.
As for all that fuss about football and the flag, we’ve pretty much lost interest in the sport and are fed up with both sides of its ensuing controversies. Let the players rack up the debilitating brain injuries along with the hits that will likely hobble them into a premature old age, as that’s their choice and they make plenty of money for it, but we’ll choose to watch baseball and then wait until basketball season comes along. If we get to go to any more games around we’ll stand and hold our ever-present hat over our heart as the national anthem plays, with due respect to the freedoms the flag represents, and the men who fought and died for those freedoms, but we’ll not worry how some football player we won’t be watching exercises his freedom.
The Nike sneaker company has recently signed a promotional deal with one-time star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the whole kneeling-during-the-anthem fuss and is now out of the league, partly because defenses started figuring him out and largely because of his politics, and we note that their sales have since gone up, but that others are burning their Nikes and vowing to never buy another pair from the oh-so-liberal company that makes its products mostly in Asian sweatshops. There’s no point in us boycotting Nike even if we were inclined to do so, as we’re old and creatures of habit and plan stick with the classic Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star footwear that have adorned our feet since our junior high days on the pickup courts, and as far as we’re concerned you can wear whatever you want.
The demise of the Wichita Wingnuts and the destruction of that grand old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium hits closer to home, of course, and serves as a sad reminder that politics will always prevail over sports. The mayor and some local capitalists are promising a far grander stadium somewhere along the same picturesque location on the west bank of the Arkansas River, with the same postcard view of downtown, and the preliminary sketches indicate there will be luxury boxes on a second deck, and they’ve already signed up a major league-affiliated triple-A team that wasn’t drawing well down in New Orleans. What’s left of the local media is making a big deal, and the talk is that if you build it they will come in far great numbers than the few thousand who showed up to watch independent and double-A Wingnuts in an aging old park for the very last time.
That “if you build it they will come” stuff is straight from a bad Kevin Costner movie, though, and we have our doubts about all the rest of it. No matter how fancy a park they build you won’t be able to tell your kid that Satchel Paige once pitched there, or how ‘Shocker and Toronto Blue Jays star Joe Carter once hit a homer clear across the street and into the Arkansas River, or share any of other history that the seventh-oldest professional ballpark in America has racked up over the years. Nor do we expect that whatever the losing “New Orleans Baby Cakes” are re-named will be as entertaining as the desperate outsiders’ hustle of the winning Wingnuts, and there probably won’t be a smoking section where we can watch with our cigar-chomping friends, and they’re even talking about how it’s going to screw up the scenic MacLean Boulevard drive along the river.
You can call all these developments social progress, we suppose, and there’s no denying that all the players in all the sports these days are bigger and faster and more scientifically conditioned than the heroes of our long-ago youth. Still, the kiddos should know of a happier time long ago when September offered a few more weeks of respite from the most brutal game of politics.