I had a really weird dream last night.
It was the US Open women’s final at Flushing Meadows, except the umpire was Roy Keane and he was accusing Serena Williams of feigning injury. Serena called him a sexist pig and said she’d have it out with him right here, right now.
Roy issued her with a code violation, via WhatsApp. Harry Arter was the ballboy, but he was lying on a treatment table, laughing, so then both Roy and Serena started on him and that’s when I woke up.
Hey, six days of the Uefa Nations League will do strange things to a man.
Roy and Serena always had one thing in common — the inner rage that drove them to their greatest successes and that also boils over in their worst moments — even before they shared this week’s sports news agenda.
Whenever a sports story leaves the cosy confines of the back pages, becoming fodder for hot-take talk radio and tuppenceworth op-eds, there is always Something Else Going On.
With Roy it is just, well, Roy. There is a drawer in the Irish psyche, alongside the ones for ‘Post-Colonial Inferiority Complex’, ‘Troubled Relationship With Alcohol’ and ‘Mammies’, that is simply marked ‘Roy’.
When Professor Diarmaid Ferriter goes to write his next weighty tome about modern Irish history, there should really be a chapter called ‘Roy’. He is not just a character in our national story, he is a theme all to himself.
But once, long ago, Roy was about something else other than just Roy. At the time of Saipan and All That, he was supposed to embody the spirit of his age, a sort of Gatsby for the grasping generation. Captain of Manchester United in their pomp, the winner, the obsessive, the one who, faced with mediocrity, shouted “stick it up yer bollix!”
In the giddy stratosphere of the broadsheet thinkpiece Roy was further recast as representing the New Ireland, one who wouldn’t settle for ham sandwiches and rosary beads and the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year. Roy’s Ireland wanted bigger, better, faster, more!
But then we realised, after about half-a-dozen high-profile examples of Roy being Roy, that Roy was just, well, Roy. Despite two autobiographies written with the help of celebrated collaborators, we never really got to understand why Roy is Roy.
But we know that Roy is just a man: a complicated man, a brilliant man, a deeply-flawed man, one whose rages and resentments run deeper and hotter than most others, but just a man.
And Serena is just Serena: possibly the greatest tennis player of all-time, certainly the best female tennis player; a mother, a breaker of chains, a high exemplar of her gender, a warrior for her race. All these things, but lots of other things too. She is prone to entitlement, to anger, to be a bully; to allow, like Roy, the rage that drives her to explode and devastate.
But to an even greater extent than Roy ever did, Serena has come to represent even more than just the humanity that makes her who she is. She too is seen to embody the spirit of her times, only the forces shaping her age are far more powerful than in the neoliberal heyday of Royism. She has been adopted, willingly, as the battle queen of modern feminism, a shining emblem of the global movement towards equality and to right the wrongs dealt by millennia of patriarchy.
She is a woman — strong, black, powerful, successful, inspirational, a mother, a giver or taker of no shit whatsoever — but she is also an ideology. So, when she goes toe-to-toe with an umpire at the US Open final, Something Else Is Going On.
For those who follow the ideology, it is a new front in the battle for gender equality, one drawn by Serena herself with her claim that Carlos Ramos would not have treated a male player the same way. For those who decry the prominence of the equality agenda, it is yet another example of pernicious political correctness, ‘crying sexism’ where none exists.
And so, in the ensuing days both sides went off to find a selective inventory of examples where various male players were punished or not punished for bollocking out umpires and line judges. Clips were shown of Serena haranguing various officials and of umpires going soft on the lads.
Each side allowed their ideology to dictate their position. Perfectly intelligent contributors contorted themselves to excuse Serena’s awful behaviour on one side or to underplay the reality of sexism in tennis on the other.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd,” said Voltaire, and that’s the problem with shoehorning humanity with all its glories and flaws into simple narratives that explain the world.
Sports fans do this all the time. The recent Dublin GAA funding debate was rife with ideology over reason; fans of football clubs believe all sorts of implausible biases against their team, and dish out social media abuse accordingly.
Take it to its logical end and you get the totalitarian personality cult. North Koreans were expected to believe that Kim Jong-il invented the hamburger and could change the weather with his mood, while he starved them to death. Catholics believed the Pope when he told them not to use condoms.
The ideological certainty of Serena led the Women’s Tennis Association to throw umpire Ramos under a bus, backing Williams’s claims of sexism just because she said so. The irony of a powerful star taking down a lowly official was lost.
Who knows why Ramos decided to take Serena on: maybe he did bristle at being shouted at by a woman; maybe he just doesn’t like Serena; maybe he was feeling particularly like a fusspot that day and wanted to apply the rules to the letter.
In any event, the humanity of everyone that mattered on that court was soon lost, and all three — the winner Naomi Osaka, Williams, and Ramos — ended up losing in some way. Which, as Roy would tell you after his various conflagrations, is what always happens in these situations.