Serena Williams and the Apology That's Not

By Katie Feifer

Tennis star Serena Williams is a phenomenal athlete. She is unique in her talent, rare in her dedication to her sport. However, she is a lot like many women and men when it comes to (mis)understanding the circumstances in which rape occurs. And unfortunately, because of her fame, her grossly insensitive and misguided opinions on the subject become national news, reinforcing myths.

On  June 18, Deadspin dished on some of what Serena is quoted as saying in an upcoming Rolling Stone issue. As the tv showed news about the Steubenville rape case, she said to the reporter,

"Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."

USA Today picked up the story. A by now predictable firestorm of criticism erupted as Serena was called out for being insensitive, inappropriate, just plain wrong. And then she issued an apology.

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

But y’know what? The apology grieves me more than her initial statement. What Serena said to the Rolling Stone reporter is, sadly, no different than what many think and say. Victim blaming, suggesting it was less of a crime (or that the victim was more ‘deserving’ of rape because she might not have been a virgin), sympathy for the perpetrators of a crime, letting them off the hook for the responsibility they have – all that and more is part of the cultural fabric we need to re-weave into something closer to truth. Serena’s a unique athlete but a normal person. Okay.

The apology, though… It’s an apology that really isn’t. The words suggest that she – or possibly her publicist – pulled some apology mantra out of some playbook and threw it out there to appease an outraged public. And that’s sad. Because it demonstrates that Serena really didn’t get why what she said was hurtful. And she didn’t use the occasion of her apology to rectify some wrongs, to use the opportunity to educate (since she has the spotlight), to show that she really did think and learn some.

In Serena’s apology, she speaks as though she views the crime as something akin to an accident: “To be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy!” Well, it’s way more than just a tragedy. And it’s not an accident, or an act of God, or a surprise, which is the note her apology sounds. “To be killed by lightening, and at only sixteen!” that’s an act of God, an accident, a tragedy. In Steubenville, there were agents (young men) involved who perpetrated the crime. How about, “For several young men to have raped this girl, at only sixteen, is a horrible crime and violation of her.” Doesn’t that sound more like someone who gets what the perpetrators did to the girl in Steubenville?

In her apology, Serena demonstrates again that she sees the perpetrators as victims here, too: she’s equally saddened for the families of the victim and the perpetrators. Her statement subtly equalizes their situations - and their culpability, where there should be no equivalence. The girl was a victim of a crime perpetrated by young men who chose to assault her brutally.

And finally, Serena does the apology dance where she avoids owning up to what she said and believed. “What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.” Oh but Serena, you did say those things. Here we see another case of the “If I said that, I’m sorry” approach to apology. Avoiding ownership makes her apology insincere, and shows that she hasn’t actually learned anything other than to be more careful when talking to reporters. Apology not accepted.

How great would it have been, if Serena had apologized by saying

“What I said was insensitive and hurtful. I’ve talked to some experts about sexual violence, and I now realize that I was blaming the victim for a horrific crime that she did not cause. I now understand how comments like the ones I made perpetuate myths. They're the kinds of comments that keep too many rape victims from reporting the crimes that were done to them, comments that keep too many rape victims silent, unable even to reach out to others for help and support to heal from sexual assault. I’ve fought all my career to support women. And I will continue to do so, now armed with a better, truer understanding of some of the realities around sexual violence.”

Now that’s an apology I can accept.