The Benefit of the Doubt: A Case Study On White Privilege

by Ahmed Olayinka Sule

Privilege: A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favour

I let my fans down, I let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”

With these words, five time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova announced to the world that she had tested positive for using the banned drug meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open.


If tennis is the quintessential white sport, then Maria Sharapova could be described as not only the quintessential tennis champion, but also the quintessential white woman. White, slim, tall, blond, blue eyed (in addition to her prowess on the court) Sharapova is the darling of the media, the tennis aristocracy, and tennis fans.

On the other side of the spectrum is Serena Williams, who is black, curvaceous, kinky-haired, and brown-eyed. For one to get a better understanding of the meaning of white privilege, the Sharapova/Serena story provides a useful insight.

The first chapter of the Sharapova/Serena story was written when they met in the final of the 2004 Wimbledon Championship. Serena was the number one seeded player, the defending champion, and had already won six Grand Slam singles titles.

In comparison, Sharapova – who was seeded 13 – was in her first Grand Slam final. Contrary to expectation, Sharapova defeated Serena and a new White Hope was born. Sharapova was the future and Serena, who was only twenty-one, was the past.

In describing the magnitude of Sharapova’s victory, the media dispensed with the usual words of “smash”, “brutalise”, and “overpower”, often used to describe Serena’s triumphs, replacing them with softer words like, “breathtaking”, “intelligence”, and “sensational”. The media correctly predicted at the time that Sharapova would be a marketing dream with the Guardian reporting; “The business part of the ceremony was the handing over of the winner’s cheque for £560,500, a figure that will be multiplied many, many times by the marketing men now that they have the Wimbledon-champion tag with which to embellish the Sharapova brand.”

When Sharapova defeated Serena again at the year-ending WTA Tour Championships six months later, the supposed supremacy of blond Sharapova over the braid-haired Serena was cemented.

But over the next twelve years, Sharapova won four additional Grand Slam titles, while Serena won fifteen, along with three Olympic Gold medals. In addition, Sharapova lost the next eighteen matches that she played against Serena. With this lopsided match-up, one would have expected tennis pundits to acknowledge Serena’s dominance. However, when the two met in any competition, some journalists referred to it as a rivalry.

In July 2015, when the head-to-head was 17-2 in Serena’s favour, Daniel Schofield of the Daily Telegraph wrote, “Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have a rivalry built on antipathy, mistrust and malice”. After Serena defeated Sharapova for the 18th consecutive time, Neil McLeman of the Daily Mirror wrote, “Serena Williams beats rival Maria Sharapova to storm into Australian Open semi-final.” Even Rankopedia (a ranking website) placed the so-called Serena/Sharapova rivalry as the 13th greatest tennis rivalry of all time.

Another privilege Sharapova enjoys over Serena is in endorsements. According to Forbes, in 2015, Serena ranked 47th in the list of world’s highest-paid athletes (earning a total of $13m off the court) while Sharapova ranks 26th on the list (with $23m earned off the court), illustrating what most black parents in the West tell their children, “You have to work twice as hard for half as much.”

During the 2016 Australian Open, the American media bias was glaring to see with headlines like :

  • – Serena To Fall Short At The Australian Open? by Ravi Ubha of CNN
  • – Age, Injury could halt Serena Williams’ dominance in 2016 by Pete Bodo of ESPN
  • – How Maria Sharapova can beat Serena Williams by Nick McCarvel of USA Today

I have seen Serena play live in three finals at the US Open, and observed situations where the majority of the crowd root for the opposing non-American player. Some may argue they do so because their sympathy lies with the underdog. However, this principle doesn’t apply when other favoured players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or even Sharapova face a lesser ranked player.

Sharapova also elicits immediate empathy whenever she suffers a setback. If she loses, she is never written off. After she recovered from shoulder surgery to win the French Open, she was praised for her resilience and called a fighter.

We see less acknowledgement of Serena’s struggles with depression, injury, and the tragic loss of her sister however. When she was beaten in the 4th round of Wimbledon, shortly after her recovery from a pulmonary embolism, the crowd at Centre Court rejoiced when the result of her defeat was displayed on the screen.

Despite Sharapova being the one to have tested positive for a banned substance, it’s Serena who has had to endure surreptitious suggestions that she is a drugs cheat, even though she has never failed a test. Serena is one of the most tested players on tour, and a few weeks ago, was tested on three separate occasions within a week.


When Sharapova made her positive test public, she was given what people of colour have been deprived for most of our lives; the benefit of the doubt. The Daily Mail wrote, “Maria Sharapova admits to failing drugs test: Here’s how social media reacted to her sensational and honest revelation (emphasis mine).” Annabel Croft, the former British tennis player downplayed the significance of Sharapova’s revelation saying, “‘I was thinking ‘wow’ how is this going to affect her business plan for the future, it does put a slight tarnish on it (emphasis mine).”

Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend wrote on Twitter, “Hold your horses everyone- about Maria- I don’t have all the facts, I hope it’s an honest mistake, stuff was legal as far as I know till 2015 Ryan Harrison, another tennis player wrote, “Maria handled that so well. In my opinion, honest mistake from a great champion.”

One of the worst offences that can be committed in sport has been relegated to little more than an honest mistake. White privilege has some magical element to it. It can turn the guilty into the innocent, a loser into a winner, and a classless act into a classy deed.

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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also  obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, The Williams Sisters etc. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo

This article was edited by Shane Thomas

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6 replies

  1. I don’t want to diss Sharapova, but most of what we base our judgement of her “honest” coming out was fed us by her. And it beats my imagination how a top athlete who presumably would have some of the brightest professionals (medical and legal) in her employ failed to scrutinize a WADA list sent to her on Dec 22. That list was not just an ordinary list, but the most important aspect of her career.


  2. This was so well written! Love it.

    I am actually amazed at how the media is trying to whitewash it. I remember Tiger Woods and feel so sad.
    Lovely write-up.


  3. I haven’t been following this story at all, but this write up was fascinating.
    I will be sure to study the way Sharapova’s story is talked about and how positively or negatively Sharapova’s image is portrayed in the coming weeks.