In the face of a sporting culture that sets unhealthy standards, her French Open exit is a powerful example of self-care.
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka won her first-round match at the 2021 French Open against Patricia Maria Tig in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6. But a message she sent away from the famous clay would bring an even bigger reaction.
In an Instagram post last week, Osaka shared a vulnerable, sincere piece of news: she would not be available for media questions throughout her tournament run at Roland-Garros.
The WTA makes such appearances mandatory in victory or defeat, and Osaka knew the consequences of her choice. She cited the protection of her mental health for abstaining from speaking with media, noting that her wellbeing was more valuable than any fine she may incur. In her message, she said she hoped that whatever financial penalties she faced would go to support mental health awareness.
As anticipated, she was fined $15,000 for avoiding the press after that first match.
Fast-forwarding to Monday, less than 48 hours before her scheduled second-round contest against Ana Bogdan, Osaka took to Instagram once more. This time, the world’s single highest-earning female athlete announced her early withdrawal from the tournament.
Osaka’s major decision came on the heels of loud, sharply-divided reactions from seemingly all angles. While countless fans and fellow athletes sided with her decision to avoid media obligations in order to take care of herself, there were plenty of others who chastised her decision. She drew quick comparisons to Marshawn Lynch, who famously sidestepped mandatory media appearances. Naysayers pointed to Osaka’s celebrity while insisting that her obligations are contractual regardless of the state of her mental health.
Even the official Roland-Garros Twitter account got in on the act. In a since-deleted Saturday tweet, they took aim at Osaka by showcasing other athletes making their media appearances.
Osaka is a superstar of the sport. As the No. 2-ranked player in the world and the 2021 Australian Open champ, she was a popular pick to win on the Parisian clay, to say nothing of her status as the highest-paid woman in all of sports and the world’s No. 15 highest-paid athlete overall. As a result, her absence forces the tournament to take a huge hit in terms of fan interest and viewership.
What it doesn’t do, however, is take her further away from her goals.
Over the past year, Osaka has demonstrated an increasing commitment to raising awareness for issues that go far beyond the game of tennis. In the run up to her 2020 US Open title, she wore seven masks with messages supporting Black Lives Matter themes, and this most recent episode is just another example of the multi-dimensional experience of being an athlete — especially a woman of color.
Professional athletes perform before the gaze of the spectator, and that gaze is tinted with the notion that sporting stars owe the public far more of themselves due to generally bizarre assumptions tied to compensation and celebrity. And recently, there has been an increase in fan interaction that carries a tone of entitlement at best, and echoes of the bigotry systemically embedded in society at worst.
This type of entitlement is toxic. If it goes unchecked, it can lead to feelings of betrayal — a false sense of betrayal an entitled person feels by something or someone that never belonged to them in the first place.
Yes, athletes have a responsibility to show up and perform. But for someone like Osaka to express care for her mental health only to be met with backlash and vitriol speaks to more than just wanting to watch her play tennis. Some fans will insist that as paying consumers, athletes must adhere to their demands over everything, including their own well-being.
And if those demands aren’t met, the results can turn ugly. Note the recent wave of NBA fans who utterly believe that their awful and dangerous behaviors toward elite-level Black athletes are justified.
In just this past week alone, we have seen former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook victimized by a fan while exiting the court and Nets star Kyrie Irving targeted by a flying water bottle after calling out the lengthy history of racism around the Boston sports scene. All Osaka did was exercise the basic human right of self-care, and even she wasn’t spared blowback; the continuous and consistent displays of entitlement by fans reveal just how far we still have to go as a society in order to achieve equality.
Humanity is not conditional. Professional athletes are people first, long before they reach the upper echelons of their respective sports. An athletic arena may be a special kind of building, but it is not home to an alternate reality where stars suddenly lose their dignity, vulnerability, or free will.
We must be especially vigilant knowing that this alternate reality is forced upon women and people of color at a disproportionately alarming rate.
To quote another Nets superstar, “People need to grow the f–k up.”
Naomi Osaka is brave. She’s been a beacon for so much of what is good in sports. At just 23 years of age, she has already given us so much of her time, her ability, and her celebrity for our entertainment. And while she won’t lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen as French Open champ this year, she now has a stronger platform than ever before to do life-changing work in service to others.
And as a result, she doesn’t owe us a damn thing.