Naomi Osaka put her well being first and the world refuses to listen


OPINION: Naomi Osaka is prioritizing her mental health but her pleas to do so are falling on deaf ears to her critics

Four-time Grand Slam tennis phenom Naomi Osaka put herself first—becoming more of a hero for prioritizing her mental health and antagonizing those who hate when women exercise their agency. Especially Black women who have the nerve to do so.

Japan’s Osaka announced last week that she wouldn’t be doing any press interviews at the 2021 French Open for the sake of her mental health. She found athletes subjecting themselves to post-match Q&As similar to “kicking a person while they were down.” Knowing she’d be fined for reneging on this obligation, Osaka hoped that money would be donated to mental health charities.

Osaka is arguably one of the franchise players in tennis, reportedly earning a historic $55 million in 2020. The Japanese-Haitian superstar is a box office draw. Still, she didn’t flex and dictate diva demands. She wanted to protect her peace. But even when we explain ourselves nicely, the collective world still doesn’t listen to Black women if we’re not staying in our place. It’s all about checking in with yourself until it’s put into practice.

Roland-Garros fined Osaka $15,000 after she won her first round in the competition. The tennis star was then threatened with expulsion from the French Open, and future expulsions from the Australian and United States Opens and Wimbledon, if she didn’t participate in any news conferences. Roland-Garros applied even more pressure by seemingly mocking the second-seeded woman athlete with a since-deleted troll tweet about other tennis stars who “understood the assignment.” These organizations can master the latest trends but don’t have similar evolutions when it comes to the well-being of their star player.

Osaka pulled out of the French Open on Monday, citing her depression and anxiety that resulted after her 2018 breakthrough U.S. Open win against Serena Williams, which catapulted her to worldwide fame.

Yeah, she could’ve pulled a Marshawn Lynch, showing up before the press because she “didn’t want to get fined.” But Osaka shouldn’t have to do all that. Osaka said what she said.

But again, the world just doesn’t listen to Black women.

Piers Morgan is leading the charge for the hard of hearing. There are fans who only expect athletes to serve as their entertainment, but Morgan fashions himself as a journalist defending the Fourth Estate and thinks he’s onto something whenever a woman of color sets her boundaries. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, won’t acknowledge him and now he spends his days cracking the whip as some kind of slave master.

Morgan is now slandering Osaka as a “brat” and “playing the mental health card” at the last job he has left, writing for the Daily Mail. He used to be a co-host of Good Morning Britain, but he stormed off the set in a fury because he couldn’t take the “scrutiny” he thinks Osaka is avoiding. It would’ve been nice if there had been more pushback against Morgan and those who believe Osaka should be stripped of her humanity, because they believe it’s part of the job to be another cog in a toxic status quo.

I was waiting for her peers to stand up for Osaka, but most who gave their opinions chose to distance themselves from her stance. Billie Jean King is a pioneer in women’s tennis but what she’s done lately is “both sides” Osaka’s struggles.

White feminism is always on time.

But times have changed. Osaka doesn’t have to be just another person who goes through a ritual hazing by the press and fans to prove that she got what it takes.

We’re off that, but retaliation is always the response. It’s knee-jerk to punish athletes and entertainers who don’t simply do as they’re told, with the underlying assumption being that they’re owned. They don’t listen to us, but I can hear these folks saying, “Just who does this n—r think they are?”

As a journalist, I’m not offended in the least that Osaka is defining what is best for her. I’m from the school of Ida B. Wells, speaking truth to power and badgering Osaka after a game for clickbait isn’t the hill to die on. Journalists have a necessary and critical role to play in society but we are not the gatekeepers of who gets to use their autonomy, especially when Osaka is not a public servant.

Where was all this smoke when the Trump administration refused to hold press conferences for almost a year? Those who have their pitchforks out for Osaka are also the same ones who once delighted in her rise, believing that there was finally a replacement for Serena Williams, the face of tennis for more than a generation.

Williams has won a total of 23 Grand Slam championships for which she’s been simultaneously exalted and smeared. Osaka, with a demure demeanor, was weaponized against Williams who’s long been characterized as masculine and aggressive. It didn’t take long for Naomi to throw a plot twist into the model minority who would just shut up and serve narrative that was coloring her public persona. She advocated for Black Lives Matter and wore the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Abery on her masks during play in 2020. She also wouldn’t be dragged into a Mandingo fight with Serena. This backlash against Osaka has been simmering for a while because she stood firm in her Blackness.

Since Osaka has let it be known that appearances are very much deceiving and there’s steel in her spine, she’s receiving the same scorn that has shadowed Williams and her sister, Venus, ever since they were formidable little girls in beads and braids. Osaka plays with the audacity that she is the best on the court and grass. That is all that she owes fans and the press. Anything more is on her own terms. She’s worked hard for the money, power, and clout to do just that. Osaka’s talents are endowed by a greater power than those who believe they can give and take it all away because she’s not behaving.

Naomi may be young, but she’s grown with her own mind, feelings, and free will to do as she pleases. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Story & Photo Credit: Stephanie Guerilus/thegrio