The sporting press also has a long, contentious history with Black athletes, often deriding them, from Jack Johnson’s stint as the best heavyweight prize fighter in the world to lambasting Marshawn Lynch and Kyrie Irving when they chose silence. Studies have shown the differences in how white athletes and black athletes are reported on, and have found that broadcasters are more willing to praise white athletes than their Black peers.
The scholar Cynthia Frisby found that more sports stories are written about white athletes than Black athletes, that 66 percent of stories involving crime in athletics were about Black athletes, and 53 percent of stories involving Black athletes carried a negative tone. “Not only does negative media coverage serve to legitimize social power inequalities, but also it is likely to undermine black athletes’ achievements and contribute to stereotype threat,” Frisby concluded. This is why, before the press became integrated, Black athletes often went to Black writers to tell their stories.
It is as Toni Morrison once said: The function of racism is to provide a distraction that “keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” The current power structure of the athletic enterprise is built to erase what doesn’t conform to the status quo. It makes differences unrecognizable and becomes a salve for normalcy instead of a bridge toward the equality sports are supposed to provide. Why should the next Serena or Naomi want to participate in such a sport if it is too rigid and unwilling to bend to the needs of its labor force?
The issue is not Osaka, or her statements, or her refusal to speak with the same boring, majority white press she’s interacted with since her emergence in the sport. The issue lies with who has the power to continue to shape the game and punish those who do not fit their idea of what it means to be a superstar. The central contradiction in sports is the idea of it as some mighty force for unity, when it has always been a false idol to the players who want their game to change. It’s easy to wax lyrical about the triumph of the unyielding human spirit until athletes begin acting like more than lifeless apparitions.
It was not long ago that Osaka’s demure demeanor—her playfulness, her young and sunny disposition—was used as a cudgel against Serena’s perceived “aggression.” Now that same disposition is being used to bash her name. One Canadian tennis commentator called her “weak,” “privileged” and “tone deaf,” adding that her stance “downplays” other people’s mental health challenges. Another writer said that really, Osaka “feared humiliation” because clay isn’t her strong surface.
It is depressing to witness Osaka being forced away from the game in this manner. How is it that these people chose to view this woman’s transparency with such disgust and callous indifference? When has Osaka been anything but pleasant on the tour? What reason would there ever be to not take her message as seriously as she intended? It feels targeted, as if the goal of her opposers was to stamp out her light. The scholar Moya Bailey described this as misogynoir, where Black women are specifically the aim of racist discrimination. The many ways in which it shows it’s stunning flexibility should be terrifying.
All of this because she wanted to be left alone? Is it so hard to believe that the most dominant and dynamic tennis athlete of the next generation, who has already soared past expectations and is blazing her own, unique path, just wants a bit of peace and quiet? For the past year, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Osaka consistently decried the horrors of police brutality and systemic racism more than any other tennis player, while often fielding ludicrous questions from the press about it. Was that not enough?
There is no binding law that guides how athletes should interact with the rest of the world. Sports are a fanciful world of someone else’s making, a sick and deluded society that will remain forever imperfect.The strain and depression people feel, whether in sport or just from being alive, can be immense. Naomi Osaka deserves her basic protections. And if we cannot afford her that, she deserves to be left alone.