#SharapovaGate: A Case Study On White Privilege & Financial Considerations


Friday, March 11, 2016 3.32 PM / by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA suleaos@gmail.com

Privilege: A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favour

“I let my fans down, I let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.” With these words, five time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova announced to the world that she had tested positive for using the banned drug meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open.

If tennis is described as the quintessential white sports, then Maria Sharapova could be described as not only the quintessential tennis champion, but also the quintessential white woman. Being white, slim, tall, blond, blue eyed in addition to her prowess on the court, has made Sharapova the darling of the media, the tennis aristocracy and tennis fans. On the other side of the spectrum is Serena Jameka Williams who is black, curvaceous, black-kinky-haired and brown-eyed.

Although both ladies play tennis and are multiple Grand Slam Champions, Serena who is the embodiment of blackness has not enjoyed the same privileges enjoyed by Sharapova, the embodiment of whiteness. For one to get a better understanding of the meaning of white privilege, the Sharapova-Serena story provides a very good insight into what it is all about.

That day in July 2004

The first chapter of the Sharapova-Serena story was written when they met in the final of the 2004 Wimbledon Championship on 03 July 2004. Prior to that encounter, they had met only once with Serena winning the match in two straight sets. When they met at Wimbledon, Serena was the number one seeded player and was the two times defending champion. She already had six single Grand Slam titles and six Doubles Grand Slam titles under her belt.

In comparison, Sharapova who was seeded number 13 was competing in her first Grand Slam final. Contrary to expectation, Sharapova defeated Serena and a new White Hope was born. All of Serena’s previous accomplishments were disregarded; Sharapova was the future and Serena, then aged twenty-one was the past. Sharapova’s victory was described as, “the most stunning upset in memory.” Liz Clark of the Washington Post wrote, “As journalists debated the magnitude of Sharapova’s upset — was it bigger than Evonne Goolagong’s 1971 defeat of Margaret Court or as shocking as the 17-year-old Boris Becker’s victory over Kevin Curren in 1985? — it became clear that there was no antecedent for this day.”

In describing the magnitude of Sharapova’s victory, the media discarded with the usual words of ‘smash’, ‘brutalise’ and ‘overpower’ often used to describe Serena’s triumphs, replacing instead with softer words like, ‘breathtaking’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘sensational’. The media rightly predicted at the time that Sharapova will be a marketing dream with the Guardian reporting, “The business part of the ceremony was the handing over of the winner’s cheque for £560,500, a figure that will be multiplied many, many times by the marketing men now that they have the Wimbledon-champion tag with which to embellish the Sharapova brand.” When Sharapova defeated Serena again at the WTA Year end championship six months later, the supremacy of blond Sharapova over the braid-haired Serena was cemented .. or so they thought.

The Great Bias

Over the next twelve years, Sharapova won four additional Grand Slam titles, while Serena won fifteen single Grand Slam single titles, seven double Grand Slam titles, four WTA Tour Finals and three Olympic Gold medals. In addition, Sharapova lost the next eighteen matches that she played against Serena thereby bringing their head-to-head to 19-2 in favour of Serena. In eighteen of those consecutive matches spanning twelve years, Sharapova was only able to take three sets off Serena. With this one-dimensional match up, one would have expected tennis pundits to acknowledge Serena’s dominance over Sharapova; however this was not the case.

Whenever the two met in any competition, Western journalists called it a rivalry (sic). Sharapova enjoys the privilege of having the slate wiped clean whenever she plays Serena, as past defeats are discounted. In July 2015 with the head-to-head was 17-2 in Serena’s favour, Daniel Schofield of the Telegraph wrote, “Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have a rivalry built on antipathy, mistrust and malice”. After Serena defeated Sharapova for the 18th consecutive time, Neil McLeman of the Daily Mirror wrote, “Serena Williams beats rival Maria Sharapova to storm into Australian Open semi-final.” Infact Rankopedia a ranking website ranked the so-called Serena-Sharapova rivalry as the 13th greatest tennis rivalry of all times (sic).

Another privilege that Sharapova enjoys over Serena is in the area of endorsement. Even though Serena has won more single titles, double titles, mixed doubles titles, Olympic medals, WTA tour titles, matches and prize money than Sharapova and at one time had almost twice as more ranking points, when it comes to endorsement she lags behind Sharapova. According to Forbes, in 2015, Serena ranked 47 in the list of world’s highest-paid athletes (earning a total of $13m off the court) while Sharapova ranks 26 on the list ( with $23m earned off the court). This tells us that Serena has to work twice as hard on the court to even stand a chance of catching up with Sharapova’s earnings, thus illustrating what most black parents in the West tell their children, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far as white folks.”

Even though Serena is one of America’s greatest sporting icons, she rarely has the support of the country behind her. Americans take their sports seriously and are very proud of their successful sporting heroes. But when it comes to Serena, this level of support evaporates. Sharapova who is Russian but lives in America is embraced warmly by the mainstream American media while Serena is treated as an outsider.

When these media houses are called out for their bias, they often hide behind the cloak of objectivity. However, when they give coverage to Sharapova, they throw their objectivity away. When Serena failed in her quest to complete a calendar Grand Slam at the US Open, the US Media went into overdrive to try and frame her defeat as the biggest upset in sporting history. During the 2016 Australian Open, the American media bias was glaring to see with screaming headlines like:

The US Open is supposed to be Serena’s home Grand Slam, so one should expect to see 100% support for this American giant, but this is not usually the case. I have seen Serena play live in three finals at Flushing Meadow and I have observed situations in which majority of the crowd route for the opposing non-American player. Some might argue that they do that because their sympathy lies with underdog.

However, this principle doesn’t apply when other favourite players like Federer, Nadal or Sharapova play the underdog. Furthermore, an observant visitor to Flushing Meadows would notice the absence of the Stars and stripes being waved when Serena plays. This is not the case when players from other countries compete at the US Open. Is Serena truly American and is Sharapova truly Russian?

Sharapova also tends to elicit the empathy of many whenever she suffers a setback. In contrast, Serena doesn’t get such empathy (albeit she has never asked for it in the first place). If Sharapova loses, she is never written off, however, when Serena loses, apart from making frontpage headline, pundits begin to prophesy that her days on the tennis court are numbered.

Sharapova has struggled with shoulder injury for a while and has had to undergo surgery to rectify the problem. When she recovers from the operation and wins a Grand Slam, she is praised for her resilience and called a fighter.

Serena has also had her fair share downturns. The media still finds it difficult to acknowledge how she overcame the odds to record one of the most dominant displays in the history of the game.

She once struggled with depression, injury and the loss of her sister and still managed to bounce back to win the Australian Open. She nearly lost her life due to pulmonary embolism, but when she lost in the 4th round of Wimbledon shortly after her recovery from her life-threatening ailment, the crowd at Centre Court rejoiced when the result of her defeat was displayed on the screen.

In 2014 when Serena fell ill during a match at Wimbledon, Chris Evert the 18-time Grand Slam winner broadcasted to an audience of millions saying, “It will be interesting. Is it a virus? Is it something unintentional or intentional in her system that they may drug test for whatever reason something has affected her?” While Sharapova is given a second, third or fourth chance, for Serena, she is given zero chance and there is zero tolerance towards her.



As the world absorbs the revelation of what can be regarded as the greatest scandal in tennis history, Sharapova still continues to benefit from certain privileges, which Serena would never have experienced if the roles were reversed. Twenty-four hours before her revelation, Sharapova issued a press release saying she had an important announcement to make. Over the next 24 hours, there were speculations as to what she had to say. Most thought that she was about to announce her retirement from the game while a few thought she wanted to launch a new product or undergo another surgery. It did not cross the mind of most that she might confess to testing positive to a banned substance. In the case of Serena, things are different. Whenever she wins a Grand Slam title or achieves the remarkable, naysayers come out to suggest that she is on drugs even though she has never failed a drug test. Serena is one of the most tested players on tour and a few weeks ago, she was tested on three separate occasions within a week.

When Sharapova admitted to testing positive, she was given what people of colour have been deprived off for most of the lives: “The Benefit of Doubt.” Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend wrote on Twitter, “Hold your horses everyone- about Maria- I don’t have all the facts, I hope it’s an honest mistake, stuff was legal as far as I know till 2015, ″ which was very different to what she said when she refused to believe Serena’s explanation of viral infection at Wimbledon saying,” I think virus, whatever they’re saying it was, I don’t think that was it. I think it’s clear that’s not the case.” The Daily Mail, which has been on a never-ending crusade against Serena Williams, was more sympathetic to Sharapova writing, “Maria Sharapova admits to failing drugs test: Here’s how social media reacted to her sensational and honest revelation (emphasis added).” Annabel Croft, the former British tennis player downplayed the significance of Sharapova’s revelation saying, “‘I was thinking ‘wow’ how is this going to affect her business plan for the future, it does put a slight tarnish on it (emphasis added)” Former American tennis player James Blake described Sharapova as classy on Twitter writing, “Classy of @MariaSharapova to hold a press conference for this and admit making a mistake.” Ryan Harrison, a tennis player wrote, “Maria handled that so well. In my opinion, honest mistake from a great champion.”

One should wonder why Sharapova, a "white villain" is being given a benefit of doubt when such benefits are never given to "black villains." Where was the benefit of doubt when Tiger Woods was caught out for cheating on his wife? Where was the benefit of doubt when Ben Johnson was caught out for doping? Where was the benefit of doubt when Michael Vick was caught out for dog fighting? What is bad for the goose should also be bad for the gander.

In conclusion, thanks to white privilege, the worse offence that can be committed in sports has been relegated to an honest mistake and a slight tarnish. White privilege has some magical element to it. It can turn the guilty to the innocent; the innocent to the guilty; a lie to the truth; the truth to a lie: a victim to a victor; a loser to a winner; a winner to a loser and a classless act to a classy deed.

Ahmed Sule, CFA

08 March 2016

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