Venus Williams has overcome many things on her way to being one of tennis’ all-time great champions. She has excelled as a Black woman in a white-dominated, country club sport. She’s battled recurring illness, and she’s also been a stalwart in fighting for and winning pay equity for women players at Wimbledon. Yet nothing she’s previously experienced, even enduring racist heckling several years ago at Indian Wells, compares to what she’s encountered over the last couple of weeks.
That’s because Williams was initially, and as it now turns out wrongly, accused of causing the death of a 78-year-old man in a car wreck about three weeks ago. She was driving in Palm Beach, Florida, and eventually ended up in a crash with a car driven by Linda Barson. The passenger Jerome Barson died two weeks after the accident. The initial police report blamed Williams for the crash, and headlines on both sides of the Atlantic read that she was at fault for Barson’s death.
His family filed a wrongful death suit. Williams broke down during a June 30 Wimbledon press conference after a first-round victory after taking questions about the accident. Only problem is that the first police account of the incident proved to be WRONG. The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department last week said that surveillance video showed that Williams had legally entered the intersection, and that her car was cut off by another vehicle. That is what caused the fatal crash with the third car, no negligence or fault on her part. “Based on the evidence obtained in the ongoing investigation, it has been determined the vehicle driven by Venus Williams lawfully entered the intersection on a circular green traffic signal, and attempted to travel north through the intersection to Ballen Isles Drive,” the statement from the police department read.
Unfortunately, nothing can be done about the prior damage to Williams’ reputation because the media didn’t technically do anything wrong. A formal police report of the incident was released and it was public information. Social media trolls went on the attack, blaming her for causing someone’s death and even questioning whether she should be allowed to play in the tournament. None of the jerks who did that are going to issue apologies now of course, and the various papers, radio/TV stations, and websites that played up the original announcement for all it was worth should now do the same with the second story, but that’s seldom the way things work.
At press time, Williams was still in contention for another Wimbledon title, but that’s far from the key story here. This should be (though probably won’t) a lesson for a lot of folks involved, most notably both the police and the media. If police are not absolutely sure of their findings in any situation, then their reports should be released with a host of warnings regarding their premature nature. Had the Palm Beach police simply said that “at this time it LOOKS like Venus Williams was at fault, but we are not sure until we have thoroughly exhausted the investigation,” there would have been no problem. It would have been 100 percent clear that these were preliminary findings, not the final results of the inquiry.
Second, social media types continue their quick rush to judgment on all things. So many people instantly concluded she was guilty, when even if the original findings were corroborated, she was still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. One of the stranger things is that there are people who will come up with a host of excuses, justifications and reasons to believe any stories that law enforcement trot out in any situation, yet don’t want to extend that same skepticism and doubt when regular folks are involved.
Whether Venus Williams ever wins another grand slam or not, she has already gone through the worse period of her career in the past few weeks, and that’s even counting her long battles against an auto-immune disease. Nothing zaps an athlete’s will and energy more than mental turmoil, and she’s had her share of it. If by some means she can now rally and win another title, it will be by far the most unprecedented and biggest win of her sterling tenure on the grand stage of tennis.