Serena Williams made the news several weeks ago for losing in a grand slam, but also for her confrontation with the judges. Later there was a long conversation about the ruling being sexist, and the judges thinking about going on strike for her matches. I don’t have many comments about the potential sexism of the event or tennis politics, but I did notice a certain style of leadership in the escalating confrontation that reminded me about passive aggressive church leadership.

The first incident started when Serena received a coaching violation. This was a result of her coach making hand gestures. Serena was incredibly upset that she was accused of being a cheater. Her coach admitted afterwards that he was cheating, but there is no indication that Serena saw any of the gestures, and it seems as though this is kind of like speeding and that everybody does it and its no big deal. The attempt to coach was technically wrong but the violation still seemed excessive and annoying.  At this point it was a minor foot note in the game.  What is more important is that it stoked the feeling of both people. Serena was already feeling attacked (for a legitimate violation or not.)

The next violation came after Serena got angry and smashed her racket. The umpire gave her another violation and she got close to the ref and said, “Every time I play here, I have problems. I did not have coaching, I don’t cheat. You need to make an announcement. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right. You owe me an apology.” As you can tell, this incident builds upon the previous one because substance of this anger is that she feels unfairly targeted.

The atmosphere became very heated at this point and Serena was charged with “umpire abuse” and docked an entire game. She then became very irate and said, “How dare you question my character. I’ve never cheated in my life. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry.”

Serena lost the match and the news became more about her outburst than the rising new star that beat one of the greatest professional athletes of all time. What really came to my notice is how most of this incident arose from a rather minor penalty about coaching. I’m not an expert on psychology, but it seems as though the umpire judge became the murmur police (to borrow a Mormon phrase.)  Serena was naturally upset at what she felt was a bogus call, and probably frustrated at the way the match was going as well, and she received escalating penalties for being upset at the original insult. Instead of reconsidering the questionable call, or letting her vent John McEnroe style, the umpire kept piling up the penalties.   She got more angry and frustrated, which in turn produced penalties.

I know this pattern so well because I taught at BYU Idaho. It was one of the worst professional experiences of my life. As general background to the school it started out pretty good, but it turned into an incredibly micromanaging and passive aggressive place to work. I found the people working there had all the faults of people working at other schools, but since it was for the church and the Lord’s school everybody was way more arrogant and passive aggressive about it. Like they want to have an opening prayer before they shank you like a prison b****.

The course rigor was about the same as other schools I’ve taught, but they had way more micro managing (for the Lord!!!), and way more paperwork. I had to do more paperwork and respond to more supervisor messages in one week at BYU-I than I had to do in entire years at other schools. And when I made the mistake of letting them know that I do better with less contact, my supervisor thought it was a good idea (i.e., revelation) that she triple the amount of contact, meetings, and paperwork I had to do in a given week until I finally just walked away.

If somebody is angry, I’d rather they just be a little angry for a short time, and get through it, than drag out a passive aggressive farce while pretending they are really righteous about it. I’ve been to London several times and study military history, and I particularly appreciated how the British military culture allows their soldiers to grouse and complain. I wished I could be in a culture like that because I can be a fiery person with something to say about a stupid order or policy, but I’m a dependable person that always does the right thing anyway…as long as you give me a little bit of time and space to cool down.

Getting back to Serena Williams is the fact that the officials at BYU-I completely gutted, and then re-gutted the class I taught, to the point that I didn’t even know what book we were using. They tripled my work load and stress, but then still made me jump through all of that paperwork. Ironically then, they made me do all this paperwork that was supposed to make me a productive teacher, but it took tons of time away from my teaching. I felt really sorry for the course lead because he had to do tons of extra work for the paltry extra pay they give.  We had a group email chain that I rarely participated in, but I saw the worst complaining that I’ve seen in my teaching career, except maybe at what I called the Tower of Babel.

I made the mistake of very slightly complaining to my supervisors. Instead of adopting the British military approach and letting me blow off some steam in the moment as I continue to earn my stellar teaching evaluations, my supervisor attacked my professionalism. So even though I had a legitimate complaint, their own turgid bureaucracy created the conditions about which I complained, and I had seen other people say worse things, they attacked my professionalism.  Like a coaching violation, this naturally made me angry, and again, instead of deescalating by just ignoring me (which was my original desire in the first place), they thought it was a brilliant idea to then compare me to Laman and Lemuel. That made me even angrier, and inspired a well-deserved swear word or two, and they accused me of not having “the spirit of Ricks.” It was such an escalating spiral of passive aggressive attacks over natural and justified reactions, and failing to let me have those reactions, that I thought the Spirit of Ricks must translate into being the guy from Animal House and saying “thank you sir may I have another” every time they hit me with a paddle.

To add insult to injury, even though they were being rather annoying and passive aggressive they couched it in scriptures and happy talk so I could never really call them on their bs. They made me so angry and frustrated, but I couldn’t show it because then they would question my righteousness. That would just make me even more frustrated and angry, because I felt like I was working for Dolores Umbridge at the Ministry of Magic. It’s no surprise for example that working for BYU-I dramatically increased pain I experienced with my TMD/J.

In one of these escalating moments where I could definitely relate to Serena Williams I had a Joe Verses the Volcano moment and rage quite gloriously. My only regret was that I wasn’t on campus at the moment so I couldn’t show them my flair. Comparing this experience to Serena Williams at the US Open I definitely think she had a point. At a number of points the ref could have relaxed the situation by simply letting Serena show the same kind of passion that made her a top athlete. But he chose to escalate the matter over what were, I think, fairly natural reactions to the point that he dramatically affected and overshadowed the match.

What do you think? Have you ever seen or been a part of a situation like this?  Those of you that know about human psychology, is there a term for this?