Serena Williams' recent outburst against an umpire at the U.S. Open represented poor sportsmanship, some say, and could have excluded her from a Grand Slam tournament. Professors and referees point to high salaries and contract pressures as the likely cause of the increase of angry athletes.
In 2009, Serena Williams threatened to shove a racket down a referee's throat during a semifinal. Two years later, she's calmer but still shouting at umpires, most recently at the U.S. Open on Sunday. With higher salaries and more on the line, it's not surprising that more and more athletes are making headlines for unsportsmanlike conduct.
After losing 6-2, 6-3 to Australian Samantha Stosur on Sunday, Williams told reporters that she didn't remember what she said.
"It was just so intense out there," Williams said. "It's the final for me, and I was just ... I guess I'll see it on YouTube."
The United States Tennis Association announced Monday that Serena Williams would be fined $2,000 for verbally abusing chair umpire Eva Asderaki during Sunday's match. An angry Williams yelled "C'mon!" during the match, earning her a code violation from Asderaki, who awarded a point to Stosur. Williams later went on a tirade against Asderaki.
"I promise you, if you ever see me walking down the hallway, look the other way, 'cause you're out of control," Williams said. "You're out of control. Totally out of control, you're a hater, and you're just unattractive inside."
Jim Evans, owner of The Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, one of two schools aspiring umpires must attend to get a job in professional baseball, said he has noticed "more frequent explosions" from players.
"I think there's so much pressure on players today," Evans said. "The average player makes close to $3 million — they're making so much money that they have a lot self-imposed pressure, and they need a scapegoat. Sometimes that becomes the umpire."
John Sparks, a professor at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, said that higher salaries and incentive clauses in many contracts have placed more pressure on players (and managers trying to protect them from being ejected), who are more likely to get angry at umpires for specific calls.
"In baseball, you have to get so many hits," Sparks said. "When you have money attached to things like that, I do think there's more at stake."
Williams earned $1.4 million at the U.S. Open — $900,000 for finishing as the runner-up and a $500,000 bonus. The USTA could have declared Sunday night's violation as a major offense, leading to a larger fine than $2,000 and suspension from a Grand Slam tournament, because she was on probation since her behavior at the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals.
Evans, the former president of the Major League Umpires' Association, said he has had to deal with many "argumentative personalities" like the late Billy Martin of the New York Yankees during his nearly 30 years umpiring for Major League Baseball. He said there are hundreds of situations that can arise, making it necessary for the school to devote an entire course to dealing with difficult players and managers.
Jack Kyriakos, an assignor with the Metropolitan Washington Soccer Referees Association in Montgomery County, Md., said he regrets how he behaved toward referees as a varsity soccer player in high school.
"It's pretty bad with refereeing and soccer," said Kyriakos, a referee for local soccer matches. "You got a lot of people who think they know the game better than you do, but they don't. A referee is trying to do his best and is closer to the play."
Kyriakos said his biggest obstacles are spectators and coaches, prompting the creation of team sportsmanship liaisons on several soccer leagues on the East Coast. Each team provides a liaison, usually a parent, at the beginning of each game. They go out to the middle of the field and are responsible for keeping the game under control, and taming angry coaches and parents.
Sparks said enforcing sportsmanship, aside from issuing more penalties, is difficult.
"When I see Venus and Serena Williams getting upset, it just reminds me of [tennis legend] John McEnroe," Sparks said. "I think there are some players who get so intense they get upset easier."