09/28/2012 05:17 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Just Win? The USTA and its Epic Failure

Dear Patrick McEnroe and members of the USTA

I am writing to express my anger and disgust as to how you and the UTSA have treated Taylor Townsend. Despite being the world's #1 junior girl's tennis player, and the future of American tennis, you decided to shut her out, to take away her financial support, and otherwise block her from entering tournaments. You asked her to stop competing. And why? Because you think she is too fat; because you think she needs to get into better shape, and otherwise slim down. Who died and made you Jillian Michaels?

I am glad to see you decided to pay for Taylor's travel costs from Chicago to New York. Better late than never. How about you now apologize for publicly ridiculing and shaming a 16-year old girl? How about you fly to Chicago to express your regret for not only punishing Taylor Townsend, but also embarrassing her in front of the world? How about you step to the microphone and express your regret? You should express your apologies to Townsend and her family as well as the thousands of young girls who invariably heard your destructive message. Pat, you told them that unless they look like Anna Kournikova or Maria Sharapova they have no chance of being great tennis players--that they can only be healthy on your terms. Is that really the message you want to give to the future of American tennis?

In what world do you live that you would think this strategy would be to Taylor's benefit? I am not sure what the justification would be for a bunch of middle-age men telling her what to eat, when to exercise, what to wear, and how to look. I hope you realize how much you hurt her. Let her words sink into your skinny head: "It was definitely shocking. I was actually very upset. I cried. I was actually devastated. I mean, I worked really hard, you know, it's not by a miracle that I got to number one." And while no one should be publicly shamed, ridiculed, and punished for what they look like, I cannot imagine any person thinking this is a good idea with a 16-year old girl. Are you serious?

I hope you understand that you follow in a long tradition of patriarchal institutions that have told women and girls, particularly those of color, that they are inadequate and ugly; that they are undesirable, and so disgusting that they should not even be in public. This was the message you sent to Taylor and millions of other girls. If you can't get this idea through your thick privileged skull, head over to Sports Illustrated to read the words of Courtney Nguyen:

Taylor Townsend, a charming young girl who still wears her braces proudly and plays with ribbons in her hair, is still just that: a young girl. She is not the future of American tennis, she is not a policy and she is not an example. She's just a kid playing a sport she loves and she's pretty darn good at it. Her body is still developing, her self-esteem still ebbing and flowing, and the last thing she needs, not as a tennis prodigy but as an adolescent, is her own tennis federation telling her she's physically deficient.

We live in a world -- we've always lived in a world -- where body image, particularly among young girls, is a lightning rod for mockery or bullying. We should be better than that.
The implications of your statements and actions are disturbing on so many levels, especially given the epidemic of eating disorders and body image struggles inside and outside of sports. Maybe you should pick up Monica Seles' book, which documents her struggles with eating disorders. While you are reading, you might want to check out the research that points to the ways that shaming and ridicule contribute to eating disorders. Maybe you can consider this study, which found the following:

Compared with overweight White women, overweight Black women were 0.6 times as likely to feel guilty after overeating, 0.4 times as likely to diet, 2.5 times as likely to be satisfied with their weight, and 2.7 times as likely to consider themselves attractive. Among those who were not overweight, Black women were half as likely as White women to consider themselves overweight. Compared with Black women, White women perceived themselves to be larger and reported a lower ideal body weight.

A public library card would do you some good; maybe you can move your training sessions to the library, requiring your coaches to write some research papers. If that cannot be arranged, how about you simply diversify your group.

Maybe the USTA needs a few more women in its ranks (as suggested by Lindsey Davenport); maybe its men should check their racial and gender privilege at the locker-room. Do you have a training program for that? Given her ample success on the court, I can't help but think your sexist shaming has NOTHING to do with her game; your claims for concern about her "health" are absurd and offensive. This all seems to reflect your desire to produce a profitable commodity. Do you think she can only be successful if she wins tittles and secures covers on Maxim? Are you searching for a great tennis player or a body to market to men throughout the nation? Irrespective of your intent, your methods and message are disgusting.

I wonder if you and the USTA plan to hire Jason Whitlock as a motivational speaker. He once referred to Serena Williams as "unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round." Maybe he can be joined by Jim Rome, the nationally syndicated talk-show host, who spent long stretches of his career denigrating the Williams Sisters by referring to them as Predator 1 and Predator 2. Sid Rosenberg, a radio personality who not surprising worked with Don Imus, once mocked the Williams sisters as not simply unattractive but subhuman: "I can't even watch them play anymore. I find it disgusting. I find both of those, what do you want to call them--they're just too muscular. They're boys," he announced. "One time my friend he goes, `Listen, one of these days you're going to find Venus and Serena Williams in Playboy.' I said, `You got a better shot at National Geographic." In the same week that a rodeo announcer disparaged Michelle Obama with a similar racist insult, and not more than a year after an article in Psychology Today labeled black women as less attractive than white women, you have proven yourself to be in good company.

Is it just a coincidence that the two girls/women who have been chastised, ridiculed and demonized for their weight, for their body, for their appearance, are both African American? Did that even cross your mind? It is hard to look at this as anything but racism and sexism, as yet another African American tennis phenomenon dominating the white world of tennis only to face unfair criticism. Yet another black female tennis player being reduce to her body parts, prodded, and examined as if her worth and value could be measured by your hands. To get back on the court will you examine her, checking to see if she meets your expectations? Disgusting.

As with the constant haranguing of Williams for her body, which often reduces her to unsightly and inappropriate body parts that get in the way of her success, the implication with your coaching approach is that Taylor Townsend lacks discipline, lacks motivation, and lacks commitment. The ubiquity of comments about Serena Williams being "out of shape" and the demonization of Townsend (not too mention that support that the USTA has garnered from some commentators) plays upon longstanding ideas that black women are "lazy, welfare recipients." The efforts to regulate a women's body through surveillance and other efforts to fixate on beauty, sex appeal, and male pleasure transcends any racial or class boundary. Yet, black women are in a particular position in relation to such remarks and the meanings are not identical in these cases. Playing upon longstanding stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, the narrative that Townsend is fat and unprepared for success, that her body is the result of a poor work ethic and a lack of commitment to her craft, is both offensive and without substance.

Pat, I wonder what you weighed when you played when you were never #1 in the world? I recall you being rather skinny. How did that work out? How many titles? One single's title, really? I thought it had to be about the skinniness. Or are such demands reserved for girls and women?

Once you are done apologizing and donating money to other groups committed to improving the health of American youth (not through shaming), can you please do me a favor: go into your office and train your mind. Don't come out until you have learned something.


David Leonard
An avid fan of tennis but not that USTA

This essay is an expanded version of a piece that appeared at Ebony.