Monday, January 14, 2008

Finessing a Weighty Issue

Bud Collins is back on television, six months after being unceremoniously dumped by NBC. ESPN wisely brought Bud on board and he got more screen time on the tournament's first day than he got in years with NBC. Bud's opening salvo was that it was good to see Serena Williams, although there's less of her to see! The others quickly chimed in about a little less Serena. This was a tasteful way of bringing up the weight issue. 

And when it comes to Serena, unfortunately we must address her physical endurance, speed and strength. I would feel differently if the commentators were openly mocking a spectator or person on the street. But Serena is a professional athlete and as such is held to a different standard. I think everyone involved with tennis on the journalism side is aware of the struggles with eating disorders that plague young women, especially professional athletes - particularly tennis players, who have occasionally struggled publicly with anorexia and bulimia. I have never heard a commentator say something I perceived as unkind on this topic. That doesn't mean it hasn't happened. Sadly, I think much of the pressure to stay rail thin comes from coaches, parents and agents who are looking to peddle the flesh.

Serena herself has been open and honest about the fact that she's struggling with her weight. Is she honest about the fact the a big part of the struggle comes from an aversion to hard training? Yes and no. Serena knows that she's an unstoppable force when she's 30 pounds lighter. She just needs to decide whether it is worth it to spill her guts on magic mountain like Agassi did when he decided to get in shape.

The point is that someone's weight is a valid issue for discussion. I've tried to be fair by pointing out overweight and out of shape men's players when they exist. It is here where I think the sports media is usually biased, because they go to great lengths to avoid calling a man "fat". They use euphemisms like "he doesn't have legs" or "he may run out of gas in the fourth set." Well...yes, a guy may run out of energy or lack legs because he's out of shape, rehabilitating an injury or... because he's FAT. And lazy. (I'm talking to you Marcos Baghdatis).

Calling an African-American player lazy carries with it a slew of negative stereotypes. I am aware of that and am not making a racial slur. My discussion of Serena's problems is based on years of watching her play and listening to her discuss her own training methods and lack of interest. Venus is often disinterested but I would never describe her as "lazy". Venus, like many women other women hate, is also blessed with the tall/thin body type that little sister did not inherit.  Conversely, Serena rarely looks disinterested during a match, and I've seen her fight like hell even when she is clearly out of gas and lacks legs. 

I thought Bud and the four-letter handled the weight issue well, what do you think?

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