Russian tennis official suspended for calling Williams sisters "brothers"

Shamil Tarpischev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, is in trouble this morning, having received a one year suspension and a $25K fine for comments he made earlier in the week. While appearing on a talk show, Tarpischev dropped in some ill timed one liners about the highly ranked Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.

Serena Williams says comments by the head of the Russian Tennis Federation referring to her and older sister Venus as “brothers” were bullying, sexist and racist, and that she supported the one-year suspension imposed by the WTA against the official.

Shamil Tarpischev was also fined $25,000 for making the comments on Russian television. He also said the sisters were “scary” to look at.

“I think the WTA did a great job of taking (the) initiative and taking immediate action to his comments,” Williams said Sunday in Singapore ahead of her WTA Finals defense. “I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time. I thought they were in a way bullying. “

Clearly one of the least enviable positions for anyone practicing punditry would be to even give a hint of defending a Russian these days, to say nothing of risking being viewed as attacking two of America’s beloved success stories in sports. So obviously this is a job for yours truly.

Even if you have essentially zero interest in issues of free speech, I think the vast majority of us can agree that we don’t want to support people who go around making comments which are sexist, racist and bullying. But what did the RTF head actually say here? First of all, he wasn’t delivering policy statements at the United Nations. He was on a talk show, and one which was described as being “humorous” in nature. (Not unlike most of the pablum on daytime TV in the United States from the sound of it.) When someone else was asked what it was like to play against the Williams sisters he jumped in to say that they looked “scary” and called them “brothers” instead of sisters.

Okay… the “brothers” comment might be a bit on the insensitive side if your feelings are easily bruised, but racist? And sexist? Unless there is some other quote which is being completely buried by the press – highly unlikely – there was nothing which even implied a racial connotation there. And sexist? I think the sexist slams against women tennis players were pretty well buried with Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. Saying they are “scary” may be a bad joke, but it also seems to acknowledge that the rest of the field fears to play them… because they almost always win.

But to the larger question, is this the latest stage of precisely how far off the rails we’ve gone when it comes to political correctness and the advent of the bubble wrapped society? Is any comedy involving someone’s physical appearance now completely off limits? Because if it is, we should just shut down all the late night shows now. How may jokes have been made about Jay Leno’s enormous chin? Every time John Daly showed up at a PGA event people yucked it up over how fat he was. Heck… following the 2008 election, the First Lady showed up on one of the talk shows and made fun of her husband’s huge ears.

Making a joke about a female athlete looking masculine is no different that cracking on Justin Bieber for being “kind of pretty” for a guy. (Beiber is targeted relentlessly by comics, including various items about his physical appearance, and nobody seems to mind.) And how the Russian’s comments qualify as a racial slur is beyond me. Can we possibly just get over ourselves and admit that public figures are often the objects of jokes in popular culture? Not everything which attracts the attention of talk show hosts and guests – even if a bit on the lowbrow side – is an attack on the foundations of society.