Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones, founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president of ESPN, was a producer, reporter and editor of the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete”. She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The opinions expressed here are solely his own. Read more reviews on CNN.
Grandpop retired from his job as an underwater pipefitter after 45 years. A generation later, Mom retired as a prison warden after 25 years.
Back then, retirement meant receiving full pensions and full benefits. Their wish was to do nothing but rest and recover from decades of crushing body and soul work that had zapped their mental and physical strength.
Grandpop, a war veteran, packed his bags and returned to the South when he retired. And there he sat on his porch, enjoying my grandmother’s peach cobbler and listening to crickets until the day God called him home — just a decade later.
Cancer was waiting for mom on her retirement day. And she spent a decade fighting before, thankfully, recovering her body and taking flight. Today, she is a globetrotter in search of adventure.
This was the retirement life for generations past. To sacrifice everything for a single job, not out of passion but out of the need to provide. Then retreat and pray for enough sunsets to find joy.
Serena Williams was right to dismiss the word ‘retirement’ in her recent Vogue essay which revealed that she would transition or ‘evolve’ from tennis after competing at the US Open.
She called it her evolution and she was right.
In this America, retirement – from professional sports or any other job – is no longer what it used to be.
Williams’ words resonated deeply with many, including myself, a wife and mother who left a highly successful (albeit barely on Serena’s level) corporate career in my early 40s.
“I’m here to tell you that I’m moving away from tennis, into other things that are important to me,” Williams wrote. “A few years ago, I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after, I started a family. I want to grow this family.
Never one to stick with tennis, throughout her career, Serena (and her sister Venus) were encouraged by their parents to explore their passions outside of the game. This lesson has placed Serena in a powerful position now. that she begins to refocus her life.
Serena Ventures, which the tennis champion launched in 2013, is now one of her passions. According to Williams, the six-person company (five women and a newly hired man) has invested in 16 companies (including MasterClass, Tonal, and Impossible Foods to name a few) that are now valued at over $1 billion.
“Seventy-eight percent of our portfolio are businesses started by women and people of color, because that’s who we are.”
If Williams did all of this while chasing tennis trophies, imagine what she’s going to accomplish now.
It would be a mistake to mock his rejection of the word retirement. Although immediately after her announcement on Monday, many women and men wondered if Serena — arguably one of the world’s greatest athletes — was conveniently playing semantics. Some said she was just another woman pulling out to have a baby.
Eye-rolling around Serena’s choice of words comes as no surprise.
Our culture struggles to validate powerful and iconic women like Williams, let alone other women who have excelled in their chosen fields. And society continues to view our ability to have children as a weakness instead of the incredible superpower I’ve always believed in.
Using the word ‘evolve’, Serena has done what society has failed to do when it comes to mentoring talented women who excel at the start of a chosen career and then leave on their own and rather focus on themselves. Embracing our full humanity, many women focus on other goals they can transcend in life, whether it’s motherhood, starting a business, or exploring other passions in life.
Watching women realize their limitless capacity for greatness is a beautiful thing. Williams’ life has been an inspiration to millions of women with less power and prestige. And its latest evolution is no different.
Many women from all economic backgrounds, including those in my own peer group, are reinventing and expanding what success looks like in our lives.
It’s not an easy choice to make. Williams, who calls herself a “wild” competitor, knows her evolution will be painful. Despite breaking many records, winning four Olympic gold medals and 23 Grand Slam championships – surpassing tennis greats like Billie Jean King, Martina Hingis, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova – Williams is not yet looking forward to this new turn in her life.
No, this phenomenal woman still sees only the areas where she could have been better: the victories she hasn’t won surpass Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. (It should be noted that Court won before the modern “open era” which began in 1968.)
“From my point of view, I should have had more than 30 Grand Slams. I had my chances after I returned from giving birth. I went from a cesarean section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. Slam. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t make it. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s amazing Williams said in her essay, adding that she has no regrets about starting a family on building her tennis resume.
It’s this unabashed pursuit of excellence and warrior spirit – on and off the field – that has endeared Williams so much.
Her childbirth story is familiar among black women I know, who often cite inadequate medical care by medical professionals who ignored warning signs during pregnancy.
Maternal morbidity rates in the United States are among the worst in the world among wealthy countries, especially for black, Native American, and rural women. So much so that recently President Joe Biden launched a federal initiative to examine how racism, housing policy, policing, climate change and pollution affect maternal death rates.
Williams felt that if she were a man, she would have had a longer career, free to pursue more championships. She could have been a Tom Brady, she said. It’s a painful toll when women admit that their career goals will be cut short solely because of their gender.
My dream was to become president of ESPN or run a sports media company. Mid-career, after a meteoric rise, countless awards and recording many “firsts”, I had to admit that my aim was overdone. In fact, no woman in the company — no matter her leadership skills, motherhood, or experience — was going to become president of the sports media giant. Not then, not today.
I keep hope for this day, but leaving is a gesture that I have never regretted.
Williams and women who dare to go out into the world as they please are my superheroes.
She has grown the game of tennis immeasurably. She redefined the female power game, garnered record TV ratings and revenue growth, won equal pay (along with her sister Venus), a battle that began with King. Williams ushered in a new generation of ferocious power-hitters — and made it safer for them to present themselves as authentic selves.
Serena Williams came, she saw and she won.
And I can’t wait to see what she does next.