Last week, news broke that tennis star Maria Sharapova was found to be doping, meaning she has been taking illegal performance enhancing drugs. All this has transpired while the pretty, tall, thin, white athlete and spokesmodel has been playing professional tennis. Most news outlets are describing the issue as Sharapova having “failed a drug test” at the Australian Open. But, what many seem unwilling to say is that Sharapova has been using a known performance enhancing drug for ten years meanwhile, Serena Williams has been maligned, speculated about, and undermined as an athlete without failing any drug tests her entire career. This story is the literal embodiment of white privilege which is why the media doesn’t want to frame it that way.
Sharapova admitted in a press conference last week (where she noted the hotel wasn’t very nice and the carpet was bad), that she had tested positive for taking a drug called “meldonium.” The drug, which everyone has been super careful to call a “substance” or “medicine,” is usually meant to treat heart failure, a condition Sharapova does not actually have. However, many news outlets, rather than trashing Sharapova for what is clearly a case of getting caught red-handed, have examined it from a less egregious angle. My favorite is the one where they basically say, “well, other people are doing it too.”
The fact of the matter is: Sharapova is doping. Her admitting to doing it for a decade doesn’t make it any better.
She has no heart condition and the drug doesn’t actually address any of the conditions she does have. The effort to give her credit for telling everyone about her actions is just another way that white privilege works to protect white people from owning their own wrong and, in this case, illegal behaviors.
Sharapova has risen to be the highest-paid female athlete in the world (that is, up until this news broke) without actually beating Serena after 17 tries and while using performance enhancing drugs. There has been a ton of emphasis on the fact that the meldonium was only banned this year. Sharapova claims to have been taking it since 2006. Regardless of when it was banned, isn’t it still illegal? If that isn’t a case of white privilege, I don’t know what is. Rather than focusing on the illegality of her actions, many have spent the past week praising Sharapova for her honesty in admitting publicly that she failed the test.
“One of the worst offences that can be committed in sport has been relegated to little more than an honest mistake. White privilege has some magical element to it. It can turn the guilty into the innocent, a loser into a winner, and a classless act into a classy deed.”
While it is great that Sharapova is now suspended from the sport, it is important to critically analyze how her story might look different if she were Serena or Venus Williams. Let’s not forget the public outcry when Serena Crip Walked after a win in 2012 or the vitriol when she beat a horse for “sportsperson of the year.” It is no question that media outlets are just waiting for the day they can run a doping story on either of the Williams sisters; I’m sure they already have the stories drafted, collecting dust in the outboxes.
The media’s complicity in this effort to water down Sharapova’s offense is precisely why so many young people of color, especially those in the Movement for Black Lives, don’t trust journalists. This right here is a literal case study in how the media will do anything to protect whiteness at any cost. Even a story about drug abuse can be spun into a triumphant tale of courage when the user is white.
Let’s just call this what it is. Let’s be responsible about reporting the news. And, for Heaven’s sake, let’s at least try to be honest and say that a quacking bird with a bill, feathers, and webbed feet is a damn duck.
Watch the full press conference below:
(Photo: Wiki Commons and YouTube screenshot)