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Serena Williams won Sportsperson of the Year. Cue the backlash.

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Sports Illustrated picked Serena Williams on Monday as its Sportsperson of the Year, honoring her dominance in the sport and her cultural role outside of it.

But every honor for Williams comes with backlash, even though she's one of the most decorated sports heroes of all in the US. This time it's the argument that a horse would be a better choice.

"No other active U.S. athlete rules a sport the way Serena Williams rules hers, and few reflect our era better," Sports Illustrated wrote. The cover sums it up. Williams is slouched on a throne in a pose that suggests total dominance:

Williams's season this year involved one heartbreaking near miss — a loss at the US Open that denied her tennis's top achievement, a calendar year Grand Slam, or winning all four major tennis titles in a single year. The last woman to do so was Steffi Graf, in 1988.

But that's a blip in an extraordinary career. S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated writes in the article explaining Williams's win:

"I do want to be known as the greatest ever," [Williams] says. To many she already is. But that’s not the sole reason why we arrive, now, at this honor. It’s also because Williams kept pushing herself to grow, to be better, and tennis was the least of it. The trying is what’s impressive.

Why Williams won: the return to Indian Wells

The Sports Illustrated award is supposed to be partly about the spirit of sportsmanship. And it seems one of the most significant factors that went into the magazine's choice was how Williams confronted a painful incident from her past.

At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, she and her sister Venus were booed in 2001 after false allegations of match fixing. The Williamses say they were taunted with racist remarks.

Williams boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years. She returned this year in part because, in the wake of the Ferguson protests, she wanted to speak out against racism. She raised more than $100,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to address racial disparities.

Despite other candidates, that combination of athletic dominance, cultural importance, and personal growth made her a "decisive" choice, the magazine's managing editor, Christian Stone, wrote.

Some people would rather see a horse win than Serena Williams

147th Belmont Stakes
American Pharoah won the Triple Crown this year.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Williams is a historic pick, the first woman to win as a solo athlete since 1984 and the first woman the magazine has ever honored on her own.

Previous women who won — among them tennis player Billie Jean King, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, and skater Bonnie Blair — shared the award with a male athlete, and in 1999, the last time women were honored, the magazine picked the entire US women's soccer team.

So of course some people are arguing that the award should have gone to a horse.

American Pharoah was the first horse in 37 years to win racing's Triple Crown and one of the 12 finalists for Sports Illustrated's award. In an online poll this year, the magazine's readers chose him in a landslide, and there have been some angry tweets that the horse didn't win instead.

This is slightly less ridiculous than it sounds, but only slightly. The magazine seems to have been seriously considering the possibility of giving a horse its Sportsperson of the Year award, breaking with decades of tradition of giving it only to human beings.

But it can't be interpreted outside its context: Every accolade for Williams is accompanied by backlash, where people argue she didn't really deserve it. The argument that an award that has gone for humans to more than 60 years should have made an exception rather than be given to Williams is just the latest example.

As Jenée Desmond-Harris has written for Vox, racism "has tarnished nearly every victory, magazine cover, and interview of [Williams's] entire incredible career." So of course there are people who are saying a horse is a better pick for a marquee sports honor than the most dominant athlete in the US.

Go deeper:

  • S.L Price's article on Williams in Sports Illustrated lays out the magazine's rationale for its choice — and the many dimensions of Williams's excellence — in detail.
  • Much of the terminology around Williams, even when it's meant as praise, relies on racist hyperbole about sex, power, and African Americans, as Desmond-Harris wrote in June.
  • Williams explained in Time in February why she was returning to Indian Wells with "a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness."
  • Poet Claudia Rankine made Williams a major subject of her award-winning book of poetry and criticism Citizen, and has written extensively about her, including at the New York Times Magazine: "Serena’s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory."

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