Serena Williams forced sports journalists to get out of the 'toy box' – and cover tennis as more than a game

Of the many outstanding components of her game, Serena Williams may best be known for her commanding serve.

Those serves, unleashed over the course of a 27-year professional career, arguably heightened the power and intensity of the women’s game, forcing her opponents to game plan for each wicked volley.

To those chronicling her exploits as one of the world’s best tennis players, Williams served up a different challenge.

As a scholar of sports journalism, I have observed how its practitioners have struggled to find their footing when it comes to establishing consensus about what exactly constitutes good sports journalism.

Williams’ presence as a Black woman in a historically white, patriarchal sport, her commitment to activism and her willingness to bare her personal challenges to the public forced sports journalists to reevaluate professional norms that urged them to focus only on what happened between the lines.

Apolitical origins

Sports journalism emerged in the late 19th century and fully established itself as a distinct journalism genre when newspaper publishers, in an effort to attract wider audiences, moved away from being partisan party organs. Sports quickly became a lucrative way to sell newspapers.

Those apolitical origins shaped its future trajectory. Success often depended on access to players and front office personnel, as well as cozy relationships with league officials. Chief among the outcomes of that arrangement was the general reluctance among sports journalists to cast a critical eye toward the role sports plays in our communities and greater society.

In general, Americans often imagine sports as aligned with the values they hold dear. Journalists and public officials regularly talk about sports as the embodiment of a meritocracy and a reflection of the power of the individual to overcome any biases or challenges.

Such media narratives fail to address how sports, despite all their feel-good moments, play a role in contributing to forms of discrimination and alienation.

Reporters play in the toy box

By the late 20th century – just when Williams was emerging as a tennis star – the industry had turned into an enormous multimedia profit-making enterprise at a time when newspapers’ ad revenue was starting to crumble.

Sports journalists had come to be seen by their news peers as playing in a proverbial “toy box” within the wider newsroom. That is to say, their colleagues saw them as frivolous, lacking in a serious approach. They weren’t there to serve as watchdogs or contribute solutions, through their reporting, to issues affecting the nation or local communities.