Tennis did something different on Monday: It usually soils its reputation BEFORE a major tournament starts. This time, it soiled its reputation after the first ball on Monday at the U.S. Open.
Christopher Clarey of the New York Times broke the story of Damian Steiner, a gold badge chair umpire, being fired by the ATP Tour for giving unauthorized interviews and not even checking with his superiors before doing so.
First things first: Steiner broke the rules. He didn’t follow the chain of command. He went rogue. He certainly left himself vulnerable. What his thought process was when he took these actions is a mystery. No one is disputing that within a context of following workplace policy, he displayed poor judgment.
We’re not litigating that point. We won’t litigate that point.
What is “THE POINT” of all this?
The fact that Steiner, a gold badge umpire, got FIRED, not merely suspended or moderately disciplined, for this offense.
If you read Clarey’s report, some of Steiner’s interviews included…
wait for it…
this must have been REALLY, REALLY SERIOUS…
okay, here it is: arguing that some rules and policies should be changed.
Steiner wasn’t caught bribing players or betting on tennis.
He wasn’t disclosing information about the sex lives or financial situations of other officials.
He wasn’t caught for tax evasion or running a Ponzi scheme.
He was arguing that policies on the use of TOWELS during tennis matches should change.
This got a top official FIRED?
Keep in mind that Nick Kyrgios has been allowed to repeatedly abuse chair umpires without being hit with a long-term suspension. Heck, even short-term suspensions have been hard for the ATP or ITF to arrive at for Kyrgios.
Mo Lahyani received a more severe punishment for trying to be empathetic to Kyrgios at last year’s U.S. Open than what Kyrgios has received for his behavior toward Fergus Murphy in Cincinnati.
This can’t be real… oh, but it IS real: It’s frickin’ tennis.
Tennis: the sport which is miles behind other professional sports in terms of publicly publishing advanced statistics and making them readily available for television and mass media outlets.
Tennis: the sport which is miles behind professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, in terms of publishing immediate reviews of its officials and allowing its officiating community to provide transparent self-analysis of its job performance as a way to be accountable to fans and the athletes themselves.
The NBA has recently published reports evaluating calls made in the last two minutes of games. People might still disagree with the calls, but the NBA doesn’t operate behind closed doors to the extent it used to. It is less afraid to be transparent. It isn’t perfect, but the NBA is better than it once was in this regard.
Look: No one is debating whether Steiner violated rules, went rogue, and deserved punishment. We can all agree on those three points.
This is about severity, appropriateness, and consistency of punishment.
An umpire with many years of quality service (at least if measured or reflected by gold badge status) wasn’t given a medium-level punishment. He was given a severe punishment… for behavior which, while certainly inappropriate, was just as clearly not MORE SEVERE than anything Kyrgios did.
Players who were caught using banned substances (Maria Sharapova) didn’t get fired (in other words, permanently prohibited from doing their jobs) for their violations.
Steiner broke the rules, but the contents of his interviews were hardly explosive.
Tennis somehow found the ability to be very immediate, decisive, and punitive on this matter… and yet with Kyrgios or Sharapova or others, it was very cautious and calculated, trying to find a delicate, politically palatable solution which would not economically undercut tournaments for an especially long period of time (if any period of time at all).
Damian Steiner broke the rules. Nick Kyrgios was an a**hole.
Shouldn’t a sport act with swiftness and severity when people are a**holes, or when they do something truly severe (tax fraud, sexual abuse, and other severe crimes), rather than when they merely violate company policy to discuss TOWELS?!?!
Steiner broke the rules… but we should ask ourselves, especially as Americans who live in a carceral state some people are trying to work against, if the rules are just and fair.
Rules can be bad. Rules can be reasonable in theory but unfair in practice and application.
We should NOT be a society or community — in tennis or in American governance at large — which simply points to a legal code or rule book and says, “Welp, the rule or law was broken. Throw the book at everyone who breaks the rules/laws.”
We know that in real life (see Jeffrey Epstein as but one example out of thousands), certain kinds of people escape the force of the law while others (people of color, the poor, immigrants) bear the full brunt of various laws and rules.
This is not a question of whether Damian Steiner broke the rules. This is a question of being fair and proportionate in punishment and discipline… and in being widely fair in providing relatively equal treatment of players, umpires, and everyone in the larger community of tennis.
Don’t just point to a rule book or code of conduct and say that Steiner should be given no mercy.
Don’t be a cop. Be a human being. A grownup.
Tennis can’t seem to be very grown-up in the way it does its business. It must be a day ending in -Y.