Yesterday, Fabio Fognini added to his growing list of horrible behaviour when he retweeted a transphobic tweet directed at Serena Williams. The offending tweet (which has since been deleted) attempted to make a joke about Fabio's nervousness being on court in Cincinnati at the same time as his rumoured girlfriend, Flavia Pennetta. The tweet (by @FrankieSport below) was written in Italian, but when translated, means something along the lines of: In Cincinnati...Fognini-Lu match at the same time as Pennetta-Serena Williams. Fabio was very nervous because Flavia is on court with another man.
That "man", of course, is supposedly Serena Williams; Fognini, by clicking retweet, sanctioned this tasteless joke. Set aside that the original tweeter and Fognini are making fun of a woman's appearance for her supposed lack of femininity, the woman they are mocking happens to be the current world #1 and an all-time great.
At the root of this "joke" is a decades-old stigma that has prevented many young girls from getting involved in sport, and has oppressed many who have. Women who have muscles and who do not showcase the appropriate femininity are ostracised and labelled unattractive, "mannish," left to constantly defend their sexuality. It's never funny. It wasn't this time. But, Fognini feels entitled to mock Serena's appearance because he can. How can the ATP and the WTA allow Fognini to behave in this manner, without repercussion, towards one the game's biggest stars? Who is going to stand up and say this is not OK?
How could a professional tennis player think it suitable to do something like this? For Fabio, this is business as usual. He has a history of saying racist and sexist things, comments that far too many brush aside as "Fabio being Fabio." During his loss to Filip Krajinovic at the Hamburg Open in July, Fognini called his opponent "Zingaro di merda" which translates to "Gypsy shit." The ATP did and said nothing in response to this incident. Too often, there are no consequences for his actions.
Among Fognini's other transgressions: chronic racquet abuse on court, umpire abuse, and not giving full effort during some of his matches, including today against Milos Raonic (interpret that as you like). All the while, the governing body of men's tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), has repeatedly been lenient on Fognini. He picked up $27,500 worth of fines at Wimbledon this year for unsportsmanlike conduct and using obscenities. To my knowledge, those fines were deducted from his earnings at the tournament and were not levied by the ATP.
I've heard a lot of people say it's useless to call out players like Fabio for their bad behaviour because: a) it won't change anything b) it gives him added spotlight, one which he obviously craves. It is true that Fognini's behaviour is unlikely to change, he has said so himself. When asked about his hot-headedness at Wimbledon, he replied, "I will always be the same, sorry guys." He often finishes his answers by quipping that he doesn't really care. Fabio won't change within the existing penalty structure of the ATP, so the system needs to become more stringent. The problem is not just Fognini, it's the ATP Tour, which turns a blind eye each time he says or does something racist or sexist. It's a systemic issue, bigger than the players.
The ATP uses these players to promote its brand, but is silent when they step out of line. While some professional leagues suffer from an overreaching commissioner, the ATP players are able to run wild. The modest fines that the Tour metes out to players has shown to be ineffective in curtailing the egregious behaviour. The fines need to be bigger and tour officials need to issue statements that explicitly condemn the behaviour and why it is unacceptable. By saying and doing nothing, the tour is, in effect, condoning Fognini.
The media and tennis fans also play their part in normalizing the antics of players like Fognini. How often do we see commentators laugh at Fabio when he explodes on court, then brush him aside in print as not to be taken seriously? When we refer to him as "entertaining" or "such a character", we legitimize his behaviour. We are saying it is perfectly fine to act like that on a tennis court. Men are given a free pass in our culture to behave in ways that we would find appalling if a woman were to act in the same manner. We already know the fury that was directed at Serena Williams (complicated by race) when she berated and threatened a tennis official at the 2009 U.S. Open. The standards are woefully imbalanced.
Fabio Fognini is not the only offender on the ATP Tour. Frenchman Michael Llodra levelled racist remarks at a Chinese fan in Indian Wells two years ago, and the ATP slapped him on the wrist with a $2,500 fine. As Courtney Nguyen pointed out, one of the most troubling aspects of the Llodra saga was that he didn't seem to grasp that he had done something wrong. Fognini drew from the same non-apology playbook when he issued his mea culpa after the incident in Hamburg. They are men and they can get away with it. That's the lesson to be learned here.
Pay the small fine. Say you're sorry, but not really. Case closed.
There is also the added element of entitlement and privilege that isn't often fleshed out when talking about men behaving badly in professional sport. We teach our boys from a very early age that they can get away with certain things because "boys will be boys," or in this case, "Fabio is just being Fabio." We, as a society, are partly to blame for lowering the bar for our boys and allowing them to perpetuate behaviours without nipping them in the bud. It is why Fabio doesn't feel the need to change, because he doesn't feel like he is doing anything wrong.
The ATP needs to do more. Perhaps they feel their brightest stars cast a long enough shadow on the fringe troublemakers that nobody really notices what's going on. If nobody is causing a big stink about it, why draw further attention to the problem? Could that be the thinking? What will it take for someone like Fognini or Llodra to be suspended? They comprise a small minority of players on the ATP Tour, but that does not mean that we should not hold them to higher standards. They are stains on the good name of men's tennis, a brand that the ATP has been lucky to cultivate on the backs of its high-profile stars.
As for the tweet that set this story in motion, maybe Serena (if she knows about it) isn't offended or doesn't care? I'm sure there are many who view this as a harmless joke. But, sports and athletes exist as part of society, and we must keep a trained eye on its participants to ensure that we hold them to the same standards that we would expect in our own workplaces. Athletes are working while on their respective fields of play. Social media, while difficult to mitigate, is an extension of that work environment. The ATP, as the head of the men's tour and the employers, must be more vigilant and stringent in policing the problematic behaviours of a rogue few within its ranks. Its brand and its legitimacy are at stake. The continued silence of the ATP is unacceptable and we must make that known as loudly as possible.