Serena Williams was forced to issue a full apology for saying that the 16 year-old victim of a gang-rape had been “lucky” and “shouldn’t have put herself in that position” after her comments provoked a furious backlash which threatened to overshadow the tennis champion’s defence of her Wimbledon crown.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the world number one women’s player questioned the sentences received by two high school football players who sexually abused a drunk girl at a party in August last year, while other students distributed pictures and video footage on social media.
Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond were each sentenced to a year in juvenile detention in March for raping the intoxicated teen.
After watching a news report about the case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which one of the boys photographed the victim naked, Williams, 31, conceded that the players “did something stupid” but asked: “Do you think it’s fair, what they got?”
Williams, who was in training at Wimbledon on Wednesday as she prepares to defend her title, reportedly said: “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people!”
She added: “It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”
The two friends were caught after other students who watched the assault laughed and joked about the crime in an online video. The case prompted widespread debate on social media and was covered extensively in the international press.
Williams, 31, whose multi-million dollar endorsement deals with brand such as Nike could have been threatened by the PR disaster, faced an immediate backlash from fans on Twitter.
The responses included: “@serenawilliams you lost many fans with you nasty comments about a young lady who was raped. Shame”
Williams, who was awarded the top seeding at Wimbledon on Wednesday, released a statement on her apologising for the controversial comments. “What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me,” she said. “I was deeply saddened.
“For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused.
“I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”
Williams added: “I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen-year-old child.”
Williams is no stranger to controversy. At the 2011 U.S. Open, she was fined for verbally abusing a lineswoman.
She was criticised for performing a Crip Walk dance made famous by gang members in California after she won the Olympic gold in London.
Her Rolling Stone remarks were criticised by Karen Teegarden, President of the equal rights organisation UniteWomen.org. She asked: “How could a strong, high profile woman, who has proudly worn and displayed her individuality, not only think this way, but opine it publicly? What a girl or woman wears, what she drinks, where she goes is never consent to rape.”
Williams’ comments were even more puzzling given that her own Foundation says its mission is to provide care for youths affected by violent crimes, Ms Teegarden said.