The more things change the more they remain the same

By Julian Johnson
Updated: April 13, 2009

EDITORS’ NOTE: This original story appeared on BASN in 2009. Today, we re-run this story with several updates.

NEW YORK — Zina Garrison sues the United States Tennis Association (USTA) after being dismissed as Federation Cup Captain.

Two referees of color sue the International Tennis Federation for alleged discrimination in assignments and opportunities.

Former touring pro and ESPN tennis commentator MaliVai Washington disappears into the black broadcast media Bermuda Triangle.

Meanwhile, ubiquitous former player and broadcaster, Justin Gimelstob receives mere fist bumps from both the Tennis Channel and World Team Tennis for publicly discussing his desire to have Anna Kournikova — a former top ten player — sexually assaulted by his brother. Or, short of that, smashing her with an overhead at close range.

Gimelstob’s other true confessions included his pulchritudinous assessments of several other female pro players over an open mic. He apologized — for getting caught — but tennis could hardly sanction him. After all, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) — which was headed until recently by a white man — markets female players like baby back ribs at the butcher shop.

Something is wrong in the tennis world, but don’t expect an incisive critique or expose to be forthcoming from its ex-champions or the game’s PR apparatus, AKA, “the tennis press.”

The incestuous bed that the tennis bigwigs, movers and shakers and “stars” lie in is stuffed with corporate greenbacks that will go BYE-BYE if a peep is heard about small matters like discrimination, fairness, equality or justice.

The next best thing to being a DNA-certified white man in the melanin-deficient tennis world is becoming a member of the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA). Why you may ask??

Because the USPTA happens to be the premiere training institute for white male teaching pros and the women and people of color who can survive the hazing process. Why shouldn’t I bow down and kiss the ring of tennis’ teaching Don’s and become certified as a “real” tennis pro?

Call it partly ego. I’ve been playing tennis since 1965 — the year Malcolm X was assassinated. The men who fed me and my sibling’s bacon and backhands — Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson aka “Dr. J” and his son Bobby Jr. — coached Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and dozens of other black players.

Tennis was played with wooden rackets back then; strings were made of nylon but just as often some poor animal’s intestines. The balls were white and so were most sanctioned events; a “whites only” policy was mandated by the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the Po-Po of the tennis set. If you were black, you simply could not play big time tennis.

The USLTA which was the precursor to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), made sure that colored folks entered their tournament grounds by the back door only. We didn’t carry rackets; we carried brooms or serving trays.

The phony superiority and the showy, discriminatory beatdowns of yesteryear are passé in 2009. But don’t be fooled: today’s tennis racism has seeped into the groundwater and morphed into a more sophisticated, subtle, occasionally undetectable, but still toxic brew.

In order to become a tennis instructor at a club, you need the seal of approval of the USPTA or one of its alphabet brethren. Though I’d been a ranked junior and adult, played college tennis and taught for years, none of that experience mattered. Get certified, or else! How did they get between me and a potential employer in a free market economy? How do they get to test me on what I know; who tests them?

Its monopolistic, I tell you, that an organization can coerce tennis facilities across the country to buy tennis widgets off of their assembly line. Lord knows though, that a little bit of fear peddling goes a long way in expanding profit margins. The real bottom line for me: I don’t trust “Institutional Tennis” to have my interests or the best interests of people like me at heart. I have seen far too much.

These thoughts were from my mind that day I received a message in my junk mail folder. It was a curious email from a USPTA member unknown to me, asking for advice. Seems she’d attended a “USPTA World Conference” event.

At the welcoming party was a well-known, self-promoting tennis blowhard who happens to be a musician to boot. He had been hired to “entertain” the tennis professionals in attendance and boy, did he ever. On this night, the email recounted, no minorities were spared his bigoted wit: Jews, blacks, women and even children were all equal opportunity victims of his verbal cyanide.

His collection of punch lines were funny to the crude, the cruel or the silenced. Offended attendees, she reported, slunk out of the crime scene, appalled and unseen,invisible to the testosterone-drunk, hairy honchos running the show.

Doing some research, I found out that the same man had put on other stellar performances across the country: he giddily told one assembled group how one of his favorite teaching pros — a black man — had been in jail most of his life and had to be bailed out to make that particular workshop. Hilarious!

At another of his party events, two black women became his “soul hooker sisters,” and he called one of their children “Seal,” the black singer. What a minx! At the club where I work, he called a pair of underage girls, “vestal virgins,” whereupon several club members angrily stormed out.

My new email acquaintance was not about to let her experience at the “welcoming” party pass without documenting every derogatory adjective that she heard, making an initial complaint to her superiors in the USPTA, the sponsors of the event, and the corporate sponsor of the coach.

As the Women’s Committee Chair of the USPTA, she was not unfamiliar with sexism and racism within the tennis community. After all, the USPTA is an organization that in 80 years has never had a minority serve on the National Board, has never had a woman win the Pro of the Year award, and repeatedly excludes women and minorities from media opportunities.

Her male superior with the USPTA asked her to document her observations in a written report. She complied with his request to the letter. But she did more: she was moved to object to sexism and racism within her professional community—in real time and with great courage.

Nobody had to tell her what she heard was wrong. She spoke with attendees to see how they felt. She spoke with sponsors to register her objections and demanded to know what they planned to do about it. She acted in the face of profound ugliness, while others shrank, or shrugged their shoulders, or laughed at the jokes. She did the right thing.

You’d have thought they would have given her a medal. But, the USPTA, which “actively promotes new membership and programs for minorities and women” and which “supports equal access,” did not support her.

They did not support their Women’s Committee chair who believed all of the equality, fairness pabulum put out by the National USPTA office. No. Though some of the racist, sexist rhetoric was spoken in the presence of her USPTA superior, it was she who was chastised and it was she who was “voted out” of her position.

Here’s a case study in bureaucratic sexism at work: after my friend files her formal complaint with the head honcho, the Blowhard miraculously finds out details of the exclusive USPTA report as well as the name, phone number, and email address of our hero, probably through a member of the USPTA testicular brain trust.

He immediately begins a full-court press, complete with unsolicited and increasingly urgent phone calls demanding that she get back in touch ASAP, and an email punctuated by an image of two hands gently touching. How heartwarming! He attempted to justify and explain away his “jokes” to this highly skeptical adult.

Bulldozing women who don’t appreciate his hubris is apparently Step Two in his manly-man playbook, for he began to accuse his accuser of not appreciating his comedic timing. She was being too sensitive, too politically correct, too girly.

Finally, she responded to him with a request that any future communication between them be conducted with a third party present. Faster than you could say, “Wam, bam, thank you Ma’am” — out came the law code book and the threats to go straight Johnny Cochran on her feminazi ass.

At this point, the USPTA national office stepped in and did what all courageous, patriarchal organizations do under duress — covered their own ass and supported continued white male dominance! They distanced themselves from their “Women’s Committee Chair and member in good standing by nit picking her every move and playing psychological warfare.

“Did you make your complaints to the sponsors of the coach using your official organizational title or did you make it clear that this was your own personal beef?! NO?!

Oh, well now, YOU have made a TERRIBLE error.

This is an outrage, you have dragged all of us into the mud… now he is threatening to sue, steps may need to be taken as you can well imagine, but we must insist that in the future, please do not use our name in any of your future correspondence…”

The dizzying tsunami of microscopic missteps and punctuation errors by this “mischievous” woman dwarfed the pile of sputum that the respected, big-time Coach had lathered on his audience.

In fact, the USPTA indicated that the ONLY actions that were out of line were those of their Women’s Committee chair. Taking a stand against racist, sexist speech at company welcoming parties is not only contrary to the USPTA’s mission, it is a threat to its “hairy back” way of life and must be squelched by the surest possible means: a one way ticket to Siberia.

How else to understand the removal of this woman — without a blemish on her resume — from her post as Chair of the USPTA Women’s Committee, without reason or explanation?! All for challenging racism, sexism and stupidity by one of its Neanderthal mouthpieces.

Women and minorities were served notice that they can have access to the benefits of the USPTA as long as they understand their position within the organization: second class.

Second-class citizenship for women and minorities is the clear dictum of the head honchos and suckas in charge of this tennis frat house. The mouthy, rebellious ones who seek to improve “access” or challenge the Good Ole Boy mentality need not apply.

My grandfather fought against these kinds of attitudes and shenanigans forty years ago. He knew that racism and other Isms were endemic, that the heart is slow to change, but that the rules and laws must reflect equality and justice.

It took Dr. J 38 long years to finally be elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And it looks like its going to take the USPTA and tennis in general far longer before they understand what it means to actually welcome, encourage, respect and support all members of this society who participate in this great sport.

Until then: “don’t mourn, organize.” Organize something new, something better! Women and people of color can and should fill the void created by the major league cowardice of tennis officialdom and the tennis stenographers who parrot what they are paid to say.

We need to tell our stories in our own press organs and let these ugly experiences be known for the world to hear. We need to create our own organizations that address the particular experiences that we confront in this game. We need to be the model of equality, transparency and fair dealing in the tennis community that we desire to see.

I know one thing for sure: I will never join the USPTA.