Naomi Osaka and Changing Power Dynamics in Sports


Thirteen sentences.

That’s all we got from Naomi Osaka out of french open on Monday after uproar over his plan to skip news conferences after the match.

He didn’t say those sentences. They were posted on his Instagram account. Nor did he give anything like a deep explanation. A global icon at age 23, Osaka has not clarified when she will return to the women’s tour. She revealed for the first time that she had been battling depression since defeating Serena Williams In a controversy-ridden final at the United States Open in 2018.

Thirteen sentences.

That was all he needed to rock the sporting world and provide another lesson in the growing power of athletes to convey their message and set their own terms.

She went into the water for a while, splashed and went away.

Using social media posts, first last Wednesday then Monday, Osaka called out one of the most traditional practices in major sports: mandatory news conferences, important for journalists seeking insight into their stories, but for a long time. It is considered by many elite athletes as a plank. .

after monumental victory And the difficult loss, Osaka laughed and reflected through the news conferences and also dissolved in tears. In Paris, she said she wanted nothing to do with the gatherings because they took a heavy emotional toll.

So in her skinny posts she sent a message with significant weight:

Grand Slam tournament day and the giant media machine that has been all the domination behind them is over.

In a predominantly white, ritual-bound sport, a smooth stroking young woman of black and Asian decent, her confidence still developing on and off the court, holds power.

Get used to it.

Intentional or not, Osaka stands at the leading edge of a broader, transformative movement in athlete empowerment. What she does with this role will say a lot about the shift in power, for better or worse.

So clear. Being away from the French Open, Osaka became an obsession in the sporting world and beyond.

Pundits, fans, teammates and people who generally care little for athletes are analyzing his motivations. They are concerned about her future in tennis and of course her mental health.

They project what they want on it and argue accordingly.

Some commentators say that the press goes too far in dissecting athletes. Others say that Osaka is somehow a symbol of a new, multi-species star.

Still others suggest she struggles with being a racially segregated, rare champion of color in a world of tennis dominated by fans, officials, and a press corps that is overwhelmingly white.

A social media post compared him to Malcolm X, assessing Osaka’s refusal to play beyond the first round of the French Open.

And yet, once again, as is appropriate for a celebrity in our time, Osaka took a minimalist approach. Thirteen sentences, just under 350 words, exist for fans and foes to analyze.

It is impossible to know the depth of Osaka’s inner suffering.

But we do know that he has had difficulty competing on the world stage at a young age.

“The truth is I’ve suffered from depression for a long time since the 2018 US Open and I’ve had a really hard time dealing with it,” she wrote, before noting that she often wears headphones during tournaments. Wears it “to ease my social anxiety.”

She arrived in France committed to drawing a line and engaging in power play with tennis officials, who have a hard time dealing with anything that disrupts the status quo.

When Osaka took to social media last week and announced she was not going to attend post-match news conferences, game power broker He backed out, fined him $15,000 and threatened him with suspension.

Did he leave to go back to them, to show that he had the strength, no more?

We don’t know because Osaka didn’t elaborate, and she certainly isn’t talking to reporters.

This is fitting – and disturbing for a journalist – because like many of the biggest stars of modern sports, Osaka is now much more than an athlete.

She lives in the world of celebrity, with her idol Serena Williams. Osaka is known not only for the four Grand Slam titles she has won since 2018 or because the $37.4 million she has earned over the past year has made her the highest paid female athlete in the world.

his background – raised primarily in the United States by a Japanese mother and an Afro-Haitian father – gives her a powerful allure. Combine an unarmed personality and a willingness to take the field on social issues that have emerged during this pandemic and she has become tennis’s newest supernova.

So it’s no surprise that they feel less need to deal with the traditional press.

That’s the way of modern celebrities – whether they are athletes, entertainers, business tycoons or political leaders. They are all looking for workarounds, ways to tell their stories as they like, usually in short bursts, offering the little tendencies of their lives and their opinions, their triumphs and pains, often without the depth that great It comes from journalism.

It wasn’t always like this. Think of the powerful insights given by Muhammad Ali in Interview with David Frost – meditations in which Ali opened up about race, power, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. In tennis, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe will talk at length about the most pressing topics. You knew not only where they stood, but also their inspirations, the evolution of their thinking and their vision of the future.

Athletes still speak, but they do so on their own terms – often limited to 280 characters on Twitter.

One of the highlights of the Games in 2020 was Osaka’s willingness to go against the grain in tennis and take a stand against racial injustice. She chose not to play a day at a tournament to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin last summer, saying on social media, “Before I’m an athlete, I’m a black woman.”

Point made. message delivered. The tournament was halted for a day, allowing Osaka to keep his promise without fail.

She then went to the US Open and seized the conversation again. this time it was with the mask he was wearing – adorned with the names of victims of police violence – as she went to court for each of the seven matches she played on her way to winning the tournament.

“What message did you want to convey?” He was asked.

“Well, what message did you get?” He replied, in a way that was heartfelt, simple and deep. “I think people have to start talking.”

And that was it. He seized the moment with an excerpt, directed the conversation, skipped a bit, and turned the question back to himself.

What message did you get? What do you, fans, media scandal reporters, casual observers, see in me?

Whatever it is, deal with it.

She said a lot in Paris this week, this time in 13 extra sentences. A strong statement, no doubt, and one that fits in with today’s tone and technology, but count me among those who want to hear more.

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