The blond Russian with the piercing green stare and clenched fists of perseverance has reached the heights of her sport five times. This statuesque star is no Anna Kournikova, content with Barbie Doll marketing and interviews focused on her beauty. She is noted for her business savvy, though it is her game that is the foundation of her empire. She crafted a clever brand rife with high-end sponsors and her own candy company, Sugarpova. With her doping ban, the threat of her destruction is touted loudly and incredulously. Tennis reporting belays sorrow and regret for tarnishing her legacy. One wonders if this pain and search for understanding would be extended to those without privilege. This mist of acceptance is granted by birth, race and professional standing. It is a cloak that softens life’s blows, turning knock-out punches into taps with the fists of ghosts, barely felt, leaving no bruises.
Privilege like wokeness once exclusively a pop-culture reference, is now part of the world’s vernacular. No longer relegated to black thought or writing, examples of privilege abound as do a plethora of meditations from Soraya Nadia McDonald’s, “Is Brad Pitt the Wokest White Man In Hollywood” to Taneisha Coates, “My President Was Black“.
Tennis exists in a parallel universe where civility and integrity sits askew. In this world propriety is most important and would land atop of Emily Posts’ Tennis Etiquette List. In this world Sharapova has goodwill which even the majority of her peers would not be afforded. Her crimes are misjudgments or faux pas. This privilege is beyond race, class and celebrity. Part of the one percent, her well-being is intertwined with her sponsors, fans and indeed the sport. It is no wonder then that her support has not been anemic. Even her rival, Serena Williams refused to condemn her, saying Maria Sharapova “showed a lot of courage” in taking responsibility for her failed drug test.
Sharapova’s privilege is evident in every aspect of her doping ban. Her doping ban timeline indicates an ineffectual testing process or a sport which has given its poster girl preferential treatment. A review of the timeline indicates a high likelihood she was notified before the reported date. The testing process at a slam should not take near five weeks, especially given the year of meldonium monitoring in 2015. Sharapova’s withdrawal from BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in California also aligns to the sport’s use of injury to mask doping bans, i.e. silent bans. The sport’s refrain that she was courageous and taking responsibility appeared orchestrated and inauthentic. Sharapova has not taken responsibility for ten years meldonium use. She has faulted WAPA for its notification procedures, though she never followed drug procedures by listing the drugs and supplements she took or sought exception for any drug use. She operated like Lance Armstrong, unafraid and weary of rules, aware of her privilege and importance.
Given Sharapova’s privilege, the response to her doping is not surprising. Commentators and fans profess, “IStandWithMaria.” Her sponsors‘ PR departments were MIA as they delivered tone-deaf statements heralding the player and echoing her pleas of innocence. Like Tag Heuer and Evian, Porsche and Nike cut ties with Sharapova in March but by November she was front and center at the grand opening of the Porsche Experience Center in LA and working with Nike again. Head tweeted #WeStoodWithMaria and Nike released a troubling statement seeking empathy for their star. “At the end of the day, athletes are humans just like the rest of us, and they have the same frailties that the rest of us have. And sometimes those moments become teaching moments.” Exactly what lesson did Sharapova learn?
The woman has shown a clear disdain for her sport’s rules in deed and word, yet she is lauded or worst she is forgiven for ‘criminal’ acts others would be railed. With news of her appeal verdict, the let Maria play refrain was expected. While CAS did not suspend Sharapova’s suspension, it did reduce it from two years to fifteen months, claiming her actions were not that of an intentional doper. Unfortunately, WADA, CAS and the media continue to ascribe her doping to a mistake, that she did not intent to cheat. Is ten years of intentional use a mistake? She is still referring to the drug as a supplement and blaming the ITF for how it chooses to notify players about rule changes.
Labeled sweet or dark, she has yet to experience a fall from her mantle of privilege. Her sponsors suspended or failed to renew contracts with news of the doping ban but returned when her ban was reduced. The media treats her with kid gloves promoting her ventures and skirting serious questions. Even Charlie Rose delivered a soft-shoe interview. The Washington Post failed to address how her dope ban has impacted her business. Instead it promoted her two-week course at Harvard University and high-end internships at an ad-agency, Nike and NBA. Parathetically, the article ends with a note that the NBA added meldonium to its banned substance list. Even Fortune initially missed the opportunity to address the financial impact this would have on her much publicized business empire. However Forbes believes that, “If the suspension stands, it could cost Sharapova as much as $50 million in lost earnings over the next several years in terms of reduced sponsor income and prize money, as well as the challenge of future partners signing deals with the five-time Grand Slam champion.”
As the Australian Open Finals begin, no doubt the marketing machine is warming-up for the conclusion of Sharapova’s doping ban on April 16, 2017 just in time for the French Open on May 28th. If you are a gambler put your money on her playing at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on April 24th. Privilege paves such a smooth road to redemption.