28 Jun 2017

McEnroe Gets Served

Culture Wars 37 Comments

For the upcoming issue of the Lara-Murphy Report, here is one of my blurbs about current events:

SIDEBAR: McEnroe Gets Served

Tennis Legend Gets Sucked Into PC Crosshairs. You may have heard about the public rift between tennis stars John McEnroe and Serena Williams. The innocent bystander may even have seen a headline and come away thinking that McEnroe went out of his way to belittle a pregnant woman, all to sell more copies of his book. What a pig!

The truth is less scandalous. McEnroe was doing an interview on NPR for his new book, But Seriously. (McEnroe’s trademark phrase from a 1981 Wimbledon match was, “You cannot be serious!”) Apparently in the book, McEnroe says Serena Williams is the best female player in the world. The NPR host, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, was the one to bring up this passage. In response, McEnroe endorsed what he had written, saying, “Best female player ever—no question.”

But then Garcia-Navarro followed with, “Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world. Why qualify it?”

At this point, McEnroe seems to be surprised and asks for clarification. The NPR host pushes him, and so he was forced to say, “Well because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.”

Now in fairness to the host, later on Twitter she sent out:

So it’s possible that she wasn’t disputing the fact that Serena Williams would not win consistently against today’s best men’s players. She may simply have been asking McEnroe to praise Williams relative to her peer group, in much the same way that people could argue Rocky Marciano is the best boxer of all time, even though he would presumably get destroyed in the ring today.

 

But regardless of the NPR host’s original intent, the scandal soon blew up on social media and every subsequent interview McEnroe did. (For one example, Rebecca Shapiro wrote at the Huffington Post, “John McEnroe Just Can’t Apologize For Sexist Serena Williams Comments.”) In the grand scheme of things, McEnroe is not suffering here; the controversy is undoubtedly fueling book sales. But we can’t help but point out how absurd modern discourse has become, when McEnroe’s praise for Serena Williams in his book was transformed into a sexist attack simply because he refused to say what he thought was an obvious falsehood.

37 Responses to “McEnroe Gets Served”

  1. Tel says:

    She may simply have been asking McEnroe to praise Williams relative to her peer group, in much the same way that people could argue Rocky Marciano is the best boxer of all time, even though he would presumably get destroyed in the ring today.

    And that’s exactly what McEnroe did… the relevant peer group being “female player” (and by context, female tennis player).

    The fact that the dopey NPR host attempted to remove this qualification shows that her subsequent Tweet was fundamentally dishonest. McEnroe even asked for a specific clarification to see if she was talking about comparison with the men’s comp and she agreed that is what she was talking about, then later pretended she was talking about something else. High time this kind of thing got called out.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      No Tel, hang on.

      Do you agree there’s a sense in which Rocky Marciano might be the best boxer of all time, period?

      Or, do you agree that Isaac Newton was a better physicist than me?

      OK, so if you at least can understand how one could make those claims (without any adjectives), then it’s possible you could say, “Serena Williams is the best tennis player alive.”

      If you feel the need to say, “She’s the best female tennis player,” then you have to say Rocky Marciano is the best boxer “of his era” and that Isaac Newton is a better physicist than “anybody born before 1650.” See what I mean?

      Now I grant you, the NPR interviewer went beyond that when she said “Really?” and so on, so maybe she was being a bit coy. But I’m saying at least she had the decency to admit that women would never beat men in (most?) sports. I don’t see the other people flipping out on social media acknowledging that. I think they might actually believe McEnroe is blinded by misogyny for ranking SW at 700.

      • khodge says:

        Isaac Newton was a better physicist than Murphy because {assuming comparative advantage} he was a physicist while Murphy is an economist.

        Likewise,

        Garcia-Navarro knows full well that women’s tennis is not on par with men’s tennis or there would be no separation.

        Beyond that Garcia-Navarro is the only one who can explain her rather silly tweet.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          khodge wrote: Isaac Newton was a better physicist than Murphy because {assuming comparative advantage} he was a physicist while Murphy is an economist.

          That makes no sense. In fact it violates the usual examples we give to motivate comparative vs. absolute advantage. (The lawyer is a better typist than his secretary, etc.)

          I am better in physics in an absolute sense than Isaac Newton. If I went back in time and talked physics with people in 1680, they would be blown away by my insights and think Newton was a punk in contrast.

          But that’s a silly comparison. Newton advanced physics tremendously, and laid the foundations for a lot of the later developments that were codified into textbooks by the time I went to school. So I can see farther because I’m standing on his shoulders, yada yada yada.

          So if you understood the sense in which we could say Newton was a better physicist than me–even though I objectively know more physics–than you could see why someone might say Serena Williams is just so much more dominant than anybody in her relevant peer group, that she should be considered a better athlete / tennis player than the men today. (I’m not agreeing, just saying it’s not insane.)

          • Khodge says:

            Bob, yes, I noticed that right after I pushed the submit button…it seemed so brilliant while I was typing it.

      • Tel says:

        Do you agree there’s a sense in which Rocky Marciano might be the best boxer of all time, period?

        Possibly, but he’s not the best violinist.

        Then if someone asked me, “So should he actually need to play violin in order to be the best violinist? I mean, why qualify that? Boxing should be enough right?”

        I would probably respond, well, knowing me I would say something pretty disagreeable at that point.

        OK, so if you at least can understand how one could make those claims (without any adjectives), then it’s possible you could say, “Serena Williams is the best tennis player alive.”

        If you feel the need to say, “She’s the best female tennis player,” then you have to say Rocky Marciano is the best boxer “of his era” and that Isaac Newton is a better physicist than “anybody born before 1650.” See what I mean?

        Sure, but why qualify that? Maybe Serena Williams should be up against Isaac Newton at Chess Boxing. You know it makes sense.

      • Darien says:

        I know nothing about boxing, but I’m willing to bet it’s similar for our purposes, so if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to alter the deal and discuss something I do know: baseball.

        In baseball, there’s a tiny handful of players generally recognized as the best of all time. To simplify matters, I’ll focus on two of them: Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. Ruth and Bonds played nearly a century apart, in different environments, with different rules, and against different opponents. There are effectively no points of absolute objectivity that we can use for our comparison. In a simpler sport — say, the hundred-yard dash — this would not be true; a hundred yards is a constant length, and we can know objectively which of two runners demonstrated ability to run it faster.

        In baseball, however, all actions are *opposed* actions. It’s not as simple as looking at, say, home run totals, since Ruth and Bonds didn’t face the same defenses. This is why modern value stats are all determinations of value relative to the player’s peers — that’s really the only way value *can be* determined.

        If we were to play a hypothetical team of all Ruths against a team of all Bondses with neutral pitching and defense, my strong suspicion is that the Bondses would mop the floor with the Ruths, since the science if baseball has advanced tremendously in the last hundred years. Do the stats reflect this? Not really. In purely offensive terms, the stats give a small edge to Bonds, but nothing like the dominance I expect we’d actually see.

        This is the same situation we’re in with boxing. There is (I assume, based on your assertion) a sense in which Marciano is the best boxer of all time, but that sense is that he towered over his peers to a greater extent than did anyone else. Does that necessarily mean we’d expect him to annihilate champion boxers of many years later? No — the average level of competition has probably increased. Ironically, in this sense, McEnroe’s interlocutor has a point; if Serena Williams dominates her peers to a greater extent than does any tennis player from a different peer group, then there is a way in which she’s the best tennis player overall, but it’s not what most people would mean who use the term.

        Aside: this is why most of the best baseball players by WAR and derivatives tend to be nineteenth-century or very early twentieth; it’s not that the world produced a whole generation of unstoppable baseball machines right then, it’s that teams were loaded with dudes pulled right off of an Iowa sandlot, handed a ball, and told to go play. The standard of competition has risen so greatly that it’s much, much harder to dominate one’s peers nowadays.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Darien wrote: “if Serena Williams dominates her peers to a greater extent than does any tennis player from a different peer group, then there is a way in which she’s the best tennis player overall, but it’s not what most people would mean who use the term.”

          Right, that’s my whole point. We naturally make these adjustments all the time when we’re comparing male athletes from different time periods. It’s not whiny political correctness to say, “Yeah, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_Marciano:>Rocky Marciano only weighed 188 pounds so he would get destroyed today, but at the time he was literally undefeated, with a title of 49-0, and was the world champ for 4 years, defending his title 6 times, with a knockout-to-win percentage of 88%. So he’s the ‘best boxer of all time.'”

          So I don’t know enough about tennis to say, but apparently Serena Williams is head and shoulders above her female rivals, almost in a class by herself, and hence someone could plausibly say she is one of the best athletes of all time.

          Again, I agree it seems weird because Rocky Marciano literally could not have fought Evander Holyfield and so that’s why it seems an unfair comparison, whereas Serena Williams could play Andy Murray as soon as she has her baby and would presumably get destroyed. (I don’t know tennis, to repeat, I’m just going off of McEnroe’s views since he is an expert.)

          • Craw says:

            Vera Menchik was probably the most dominat female chess player ever over her contemporary women competitors. But she was nowhere near any of the top players of her time whom she played in tournaments. Judit Polgar is unquestionably the strongest female player ever, the only one to be competitive at the very highest level and to do well even against the strongest male opposition, whom she played in tournaments. But she never achieved the crushing dominance over other women that Vera did (largely because Judit had sisters).

            Maybe on the basis of that difference in dominance you can say Vera was a greater female player than Judit. But you can’t sensibly say Vera was better than Capablanca or Botvinnik, her contemporaries. You cannot call her the greatest player.

          • baconbacon says:

            “We naturally make these adjustments all the time when we’re comparing male athletes from different time periods.”

            There is a difference between being physically unable to compete (because you are dead or past your prime by a few decades) against another group, and deciding not to.

            If you said “Rocky Marciano was the best of all time” and someone replied,”except it was illegal for minorities like blacks, hispanics and jews to box in that era” that would be a legitimate point against Marciano (if it was true), just as it is a serious point against Babe Ruth when discussing him in historical context.

      • Craw says:

        JM had already said she was the best female tennis player ever when she pushed him to drop the qualification. And he did not say there were 699 past players better, he said she’d bee about 700 on the current circuit. And then they had him back later to “apologize”, which he did not do. So Tel is right.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        That is a possible, maybe even the most likely explanation, but I think Tel’s explanation is also possible, and given the propensity of a lot of journalists, especially in this precise topic, which consists of deceitfully trying to play gotcha and twist people’s words so that their SJW virtue signalling can then be printed no matter what the people said. And to paint a popular former tennis player as one of the tired name calling words (mysoginist) would probably get her praise from her fellow SJWs.

      • ax123man says:

        I see what your doing here, but in her first statement:

        “some would say she’s the best player in the world”

        This seems like she’s saying she could beat the men. Why else use the word “player”? Also, when McEnroe elaborated she responded with “You think so?” The tweet was an attempt at back-peddling.

        Also, would we extend this to a variance by age instead of sex? There are many examples of under-20 athletes absolutely dominating their age group. Or the senior tour in golf? What about the handicapped?

        As a side note, both Williams sisters played a guy who I believe was ranked 200 in the world and lost badly. McEnroe might have exaggerated here, but who knows.

  2. Darien says:

    Political correctness is, of course, entirely *about* refusing to say things you know to be obvious falsehoods. It has been so since the term came into use in the old Soviet Union — that very qualify is what distinguishes political correctness from ordinary, real correctness.

    • Tel says:

      Yeah, it’s a way to prove dominance if you can make the other guy admit in public that’s he’s a moron.

  3. JimS says:

    Hard to believe an economist doesn’t immediately recognize the economic side of this issue: Create controversy, draw attention, increase sales and activity at promotional events for the book.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Hard to believe an astute reader like JimS missed this from my post: “In the grand scheme of things, McEnroe is not suffering here; the controversy is undoubtedly fueling book sales.”

      And if you’re saying you think the whole thing is staged, I disagree. I couldn’t get the audio, but from the transcript, it seemed like McEnroe was genuinely confused/surprised at the NPR woman’s question. And then when he realized what she was asking, he tried to soften the blow by talking about “on any given day” and SW’s mental toughness. So I think he was truly caught off guard and tried to gently explain why he didn’t think SW should be classed at #1 in the world.

      • JimS says:

        Thanks for the compliment. Not even my mother considers me astute (maybe a stooge). I have only read the print articles and not heard the audio,so I do not hear any surprise.

        People who have not competed at higher levels and who routinely are beaten by women in physical competition, would not understand McEnroe’s surprise. There is good reason women do not box men. Your average prize fighter would do serious harm to even your top female contender. This goes for other physically demanding sports like rugby, american football, hockey, jousting, dueling (you don’t want to come in second dueling as I have here against Dr. Bob).

        As a former Marine, I see what is happening in the service with women in combat roles. Just in your average training scenarios, women fail miserably. At the higher end, they are non-starters. There is a tremendous effort to level the field by altering standards and turning a blind eye. Should we ever encounter another Iwo Jima or Saipan, people are in for a rude awakening. What this is about is what your other readers cite; PCness; shock that somone would suggest that women are not equal in every way to men.

        Marquis de Custine excellent work on his travels in Russia during the 1800s cites what essentially is happening here. de Custine’s work is similiar to Tocqueville’s work on America. Custine notes that the manner in which the Russians lie all the time in an effort not to offend the Czar, or other officials is psychologically damaging and that after long periods of forced lying a people become detached from reality and are soon willing to believe anything. It is this self deception that would eventual make the Russians ripe for despotism.

        At its essence, PCness works similarly. We are forced to accept the anything you can do I can do better mantra about female abilities but in reality, when in a burning building, which one of us truly wants to look down 5 floors to see five women holding a life net for you to leap into versus five large men? Which strikes more concern into an adversaries heart, stepping off the mike boat, your women’s bowing title contender or your average 6ft 200 plus pound male Marine?

        Of course, this is all about to change. Seems everyone has forgotten Dr. Rene Richards.

        • Craw says:

          Judit Polgar. Explain.

          • Jim says:

            Explain what Rene Richards? Goggle her/him. Rene Richards was a doctor who had a sex change operation. He was a pretty decent club player but after the operation played women’s pro tennis. He didn’t play men’s pro as he would have been beaten badly. We have been seeing this in high school sports with guys identifying as girls allowed to play on the girls team, particularly in CA. I think we will see more of this mostly at the high school and college level. I think it has the potential to really skew title IX scholarships.

        • Harold says:

          ” Which strikes more concern into an adversaries heart, stepping off the mike boat, your women’s bowing title contender or your average 6ft 200 plus pound male Marine?”

          The one with the biggest gun, probably.

  4. skylien says:

    Serena would never beat the greatest tennis player of all time who can slice a tennis ball into top spin without a racket! Chuck Norris!

  5. Anonymous says:

    This made me think of other sporting categories. From Wikipedia “[Tanni] Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida and is a wheelchair user. She is one of the most successful disabled athletes in the UK. ” (emphasis mine).

    It is quite usual to qualify these things.
    “But then Garcia-Navarro followed with, “Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world. Why qualify it?””

    Possibly some wouldn’t qualify it, but most probably would. There is a case to be made for “best in the world” along the Marciano lines, but that case does have to be made, not assumed. If there are people around now that can beat you consistently you have to make a special argument that you are “best in the world”.

    So my sympathies are with McEnroe. I am slightly interested in the 700 position – is that realistic or hyperbole? Do we have any matches between top women and not quite so top men? I guess we could find out from athletics what position women’s times would put them compared to men.

    • skylien says:

      Well, it is pure speculation. I don’t know if Serena would be 700 or 100.

      The only meaningful comparison between men and women I know of was in football (soccer):

      Australiens womens football team made a test match for the preparation of Olympia 2016 against a team of under 15 year old boys and lost. Mind you that Australiens team at that time was the number 5 of the world. And a similar experience was made by the German womens football team in 2003 when they were the actual world champions.

      However I guess the gulf between men and women in football is much bigger than in tennis since tennis is much more established as womans sport.

      So girls, start to play football to increase the quality at the top! Also keep up the tests against men, only then you can know where you stand and also use it to get better.

      • skylien says:

        omg.. *Australian*

      • Yancey Ward says:

        Skylien,

        There is no real speculation here- there are between 2000 and 3000 professional men’s tennis players in the world, almost all of whom are under 36 years of age. It is certain that 95%+ of them would easily beat Serena Williams in her prime. Once you get beyond the top 50 or so, the level of ability is pretty damned flat on the men’s side- it isn’t like the player ranked 2500th is a 50 year old buy with a pot belly and one foot missing.

        Link>Battle of the Sexes

        • skylien says:

          95% seems really high. Well I can’t say, that is for sure…

      • Harold says:

        Anonymous was me, must have not put the name in or something.

        It would seem from the comments that 700 may not be too far off the mark – maybe 200 or something would be just as likely, but well off the pace.

        I had understood that soccer was something of a girls sport in USA, athough I may be wrong about that.

        Having had something to do with very amateur children’s football coaching in the UK, there are some girls interested up to age about 9, and they hold their own. They very soon drop out. The number of girls playing at under 15’s is very small. The womens professional game is picking from a pool many times smaller than the men’s game. If I am right about the USA, we might expect the USA womens soccer team to perform much better internationally than the USA men’s team.

        After typing that, I looked it up – guess who is No. 1 in women’s football – yes, the USA! The men’s team is No. 23. Dissapointingly, England is now 13 (joint with Wales, of all possible teams).

        Anyway, no particular point but interesting.

        • skylien says:

          Sounds logical. Interests are what they are, and people should be also able to accept them with all their implications. However I do think that women football has a long way to go to reach its potential unlike tennis.

          Yes you are right, the US woman national team is quite good. And yes your reasoning explains why they are so good compared to the men in their respective rankings. A mystery solved for me.

  6. skylien says:

    Also I have a huge respect for Lindsey Vonn, a top down hill skier. She wants to race men, unfortunately she had quite a long spell of injuries in the last years. Else I guess it would have happened already. Hope she still can make i happen, obviously not only the injuries are road blocks for that to happen but also the officials…
    .
    https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2017/06/28/lindsey-vonn-wants-race-men-whether-officials-approve-not/437079001/

  7. Rory says:

    In the interest of adding some color, and as a tennis fan, I would direct you to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Sexes_(tennis)

    Perhaps the 3 most relevant passages:

    1. In 1998 Serena and her sister Venus played Karsten Braasch, a male player then ranked 203 after they claimed they could beat any man ranked outside the top 200. Karsten beat them both handily despite having had two beers before the match and possessing generally questionable fitness. To be fair, I’ll say that Serena and Venus were 17 and 18 at the time, respectively, and of course not at their peaks (though at the time Venus was a stable Grand Slam quarterfinalist and would break into the women’s top 10 two months later, so not too shabby).

    2. When asked about a possible exhibition against then-Men’s World No. 4 ranking Andy Murray, Serena herself said “That would be fun. I doubt I’d win a point, but that would be fun.”

    3. This one doesn’t involve Serena, but in 2003 then 43-year old Yannick Noah played then-22 year old Justine Henin in an exhibition. Yannick last competed in a Grand Slam event in 1990 (not won, competed) and as far as I can tell last played tennis professionally in 1997. Justine meanwhile was reaching her prime, having already won 2 Grand Slams earlier that year, going on to win 5 more in the next 4 years. Despite “predominantly playing trick shots and slices”, Yannick still beat her, and while not a drubbing, it was not close.

    My point in this is not at all to berate women, rather I really don’t see how any of McEnroe’s comments were at all controversial, nor do I see how this diminishes Serena in any way; she is amazing. Especially given that McEnroe did not himself steer the conversation towards a men vs. women thing, I don’t get why anyone would be up in arms about this.

    • Rory says:

      Oh and, my mistake: I meant to add #2 happened in 2013

    • skylien says:

      Interesting. Thanks.

  8. skylien says:

    Well, sometimes at least women actually are quite as good as men. At least one woman was, in rallying. Check out Michèle Mouton. She was second in the season of 1982 behind Walter Röhrl.

    But obviously the physical aspect is less in rallying than football or tennis..

  9. Josiah says:

    I am the best tennis player in the world, for I am undefeated among my peer group.

  10. Dan says:

    You have to qualify the statement if you are going to say X is the best at something when someone else is clearly better. In boxing they qualify it all the time by saying so and so is the best pound for pound fighter ever.

  11. Harold says:

    A very interesting case is Beryl Burton, a fantastic Yorkshire cyclist. She regularly beat the men. From Wiki:
    “In 1967, she set a new 12-hour time trial record of 277.25 miles[4] – a mark that surpassed the men’s record of the time by 0.73 miles and was not superseded by a man until 1969.[5] While setting the record she caught and passed Mike McNamara who was on his way to setting the men’s record at 276.52 miles and winning that year’s men’s British Best All-Rounder.”

    So in that one sport, for that time, a woman was the undisputed best in the world. I think there is a good case to be made for “best ever”

    A couple of side points. I quite like the challenge of going as far as you can in a given time, rather than a given distance in as fast as possible. There does not seem to be much of it about today.

    Beryl had rheumatic fever as a child and had a heart arrhythmia. She had been warned off exercise by the doctors, and unfortunately it did eventually kill her at age 59. Her daughter was also a top cyclist.

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