I want to give a high five and a fist bump to former WTA player Leslie Allen for her rebuke of a recent statement released by the United States Tennis Association during the surge of protests ignited by the brutal killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop.
The death of Floyd and other blacks – Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, to name a couple — have stirred new reflections on police brutality and systemic and institutional racism in America. Major sports leagues and corporations have issued statements affirming their commitments to diversity and equal justice.
Some of the USTA’s brightest young stars have lent their voices to the revived Black Lives Matter movement. Frances Tiafoe, 22, led several players, including Serena Williams, in a video display of support — as they put their racquets down and their hands up. Teen sensation Coco Gauff marched and spoke at a rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Fla., where she urged people to speak out against racism, injustice and inequality.
“The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people,” she said, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On June 1, the USTA joined the chorus with a “statement on current events” that began like this:
“Tennis is a sport that embraces all players, regardless of age, race or religion, gender and sexual orientation or nationality. It is a sport that is built on respect – respect for one another, and for the game itself. It is a sport with a long history of striving for equality and a proven record of trying to level the playing field of opportunity.”
Whoa! Is this statement about the same sport with the same history I have been researching since I began writing this blog four years ago? Is it about the same history sports journalist Cecil Harris has written about in two books on blacks in tennis?
It can’t be.
In a commentary for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Allen said she could not believe what she had read.
“While I’m sure the statement was released with good intentions, it felt tone-deaf as it failed to accurately reflect the long history of the USTA when it came to black players and black executives,” said Allen, who has served as a WTA tournament director and USTA executive.
Here is a refresher on some of that history.
For nearly 70 years after its creation as the United States Tennis and Lawn Association in 1881, the organization excluded blacks from participating in its tournaments.
In his latest book, “Different Strokes: Serena, Venus and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution,” Cecil Harris cites a 1922 meeting in New York where USTLA officials voted to deny a request by Howard University to join the organization.
“The person taking the minutes at this meeting added a note that a letter should be sent to each of the USTLA’s regional sections stating that this was now the established policy regarding any black organization seeking admittance to the USTLA,” Harris writes.
The USTLA’s aversion to black tennis players led to the founding of the American Tennis Association in 1916. To this day, it hosts a national tournament every year and stands out as the oldest black sports organization in America.
It took the prodding of Alice Marble, a successful white player who challenged the USTLA in 1950 to allow Althea Gibson to play in what was the forerunner to the U.S. Open, to break through the barriers that had been in place for decades.
Yet, while the organization opened its doors to black players, it did not necessarily open its arms.
Gibson, who won five major titles, including back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships in 1957-58, was subjected to all sorts of racial indignities.
Apparently not much had changed more than 20 years later when Allen came on the scene. Allen, who ranked as high as No. 17 in the world, won the Avon Championships in 1981 to become the first black woman since Gibson to win a big pro tournament. The Cleveland, Ohio, native said she routinely had to be validated by white players before security guards would allow her entry at tournaments.
She said there were other slights and insults she ignored. But an encounter during a French Open mixed-doubles championship match infuriated her almost to the breaking point.
“As my white male opponent walked by where I was sitting during the changeover, he leaned in and called me the ‘N’ and ‘C’ word,” Allen said. “I was livid.”
Allen said she was prepared to spit in the male opponent’s face rather than shake his hand after the match as is customary. She chose not to because “acting out meant the risk of being Kaepernicked,” she said, referring to Colin Kaepernick, the black quarterback who was drummed out of the National Football League for kneeling on one knee during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality against blacks.
“He was never so much as reprimanded, and later ascended to be an executive with the USTA,” Allen said of her opponent.
Allen did not name her antagonist. Nor did she say what year in which the incident occurred. But a quick records check shows the 1983 French Open was her only mixed-doubles final appearance. Her male opponent was an American named Eliot Teltscher. He was named USTA director of tennis operations in 2002.
I reached out to Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis Museum and president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, to hear what he thought of the USTA statement and Allen’s reaction.
“Leslie was right on,” said Davis, who has spent a good chunk of his life trying to grow the sport of tennis in black neighborhoods. “I commended her for setting the record straight. I experienced all of the indignities that she mentioned.”
The USTA statement also affirmed a commitment to diversity and revulsion to racism.
“At the USTA, we challenge ourselves daily to embody the core values of inclusion and respect…The African-American community is an integral part of our tennis family, and the USTA stands unwaveringly against racism and injustice of any kind.”
That passage also seems to be out of step with reality, despite the fact the organization named its signature stadium for the U.S. Open after Arthur Ashe Jr., the first and only African American male to win a major title, and appointed Katrina Adams, a black former WTA player, to head the organization for an unprecedented two straight two-year terms.
In his book released in February, Harris devotes an entire chapter to friction between black umpires and the USTA.
Harris recalls the 2001 U.S. Open match between African American player James Blake and Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt in which Hewitt suggested a black line judge had given Blake preferential treatment on a call. Instead of defending the line judge and condemning Hewitt’s remarks, Harris notes, the USTA said nothing. Instead, it rotated three all-white officiating crews, 22 people in all, to work the Australian’s next match.
But the bulk of the chapter focuses on two discrimination lawsuits. The first was filed in 2005 by Sande French and Cecil Hollins, who accused the USTA of systemic race, gender and age discrimination that denied them opportunities to advance and officiate the U.S. Open’s premier matches.
For Hollins, who had achieved the highest rank an umpire could hold, the ultimate indignity came one morning during the 1997 U.S. Open while he was playing tennis with another black umpire before the start of the day’s matches. A white male groundskeeper told the two black players he had to get the court ready, so “You n——-s got to get off the court.”
Harris writes that when they complained to chief of umpires Rich Kaufman, they were told “You’re both lucky to be working this tournament…Don’t come in here bothering me with this.”
That a groundskeeper would so casually use the “N” word in the late 1990s suggests there was a culture at the USTA in which he felt confident there would be no repercussions. And he turned out to be right.
Such disregard for complaints about racial slurs and insults led black umpire Tony Nimmons to complain to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2015, Harris writes. He filed his own lawsuit against the USTA a year later after he was fired, ending his dream of one day presiding over a U.S. Open singles final.
Ironically, Nimmons had been placed in charge of diversity for the USTA after an investigation by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found merit in the charges that had been brought by Hollins and French a decade earlier.
“There’s a racist culture at the USTA,” Nimmons told Harris.
While French and Hollins negotiated an out-of-court settlement, Nimmons’ lawsuit languishes under what he considers USTA stalling tactics. Harris writes that Nimmons clings to hope based on a 2018 EEOC letter affirming he had probable cause to sue the USTA.
I asked Harris what he thought of the USTA statement and Allen’s reaction. He applauded Allen’s comments and called the USTA’s failure to acknowledge its own shortcomings on race relations “despicable.”
In her commentary, Allen said the USTA fumbled an opportunity to advance the conversation on race.
“Instead of a milquetoast statement,” she said, “the USTA should have used its platform to implore more white people to be like Alice Marble.”
The USTA can commended for its effort to expand tennis into all communities, but as Harris suggests in “Different Strokes…,” the organization still has some work to do in its own house.
“Despite the appointment of Katrina Adams as the USTA’s first black president and chair in 2015, America’s governing body for tennis could still be more inclusive and diverse,” Harris writes. “That particular problem is as old as the institution itself.”