In 2018, Naomi Osaka became a household name after beating Serena Williams in the U.S. Open and landed her first Grand Slam title. Osaka’s win could have been viewed as a passing of the torch—not only from one champion to another but from one Black woman to another. But Osaka’s title came with a different type of inheritance, an inheritance of what it really meant to be the most visible person in tennis while also being a Black woman.
That spotlight has often meant being subject to more scrutiny than anyone else. In sports, the intersection of race and gender results in those institutions reminding Black athletes that they “belong” to them, and that those athletes should be grateful they’ve been allowed to play. All of this was on display the same day that Osaka won that title in 2018, when Williams was not only accused of receiving a signal from her coach, but the International Tennis Federation fined her $17,000 for expressing her anger on the court. Those violations cost her the game. Three years later, tennis still hasn’t figured out how to treat athletes like humans. The same league that banned Williams’ “Wakanda-inspired” catsuit that helped with her postpartum blood clots is the same league dismissing Osaka’s plea regarding her mental health.
Last week, Osaka decided to skip the press conference after winning her first round match at the French Open, noting that negative questions about her performance adversely affect her mental health. Because of her absence, she was fined $15,000 and risked being barred from the competition altogether. On Monday, Osaka announced she was withdrawing from the French Open. “The truth is that I have suffered with long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote in a note on Instagram. A statement provided by the tournament’s leadership wished Osaka the “quickest possible recovery.” The backlash from her decision to prioritize her mental health is even more indicative of how often athletes are reduced to their performance and bodies.
“While it's important that everyone has their right to speak the truth, I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” famed tennis player Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. And then, there was criticism by people like Piers Morgan, who unlike King and Osaka hold no Grand Slam titles. Morgan’s latest column calls Osaka “an arrogant spoiled brat” with an “inflated ego.” But it doesn’t stop there. “This is straight out of the Meghan and Harry playbook of wanting to have the world’s largest cake and eating it, by exploiting the media for commercial self-promotion but using mental health to silence any media criticism.”
Morgan’s comparison of Osaka and Markle not only ignores that the media is not beyond reproach for how it can overstep boundaries. It also misses how as biracial women, Markle and Osaka’s Blackness leaves them more susceptible to scrutiny than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, Osaka and Williams’ problems show how the blatant disregard for how Black women’s physical and mental health in sports is not just a tennis problem.
Last month, a clip of gymnast Simone Biles completing a Yurchenko double pike went viral. The clip gets a lot more interesting once you realize that the move in question is considered so complex that no other woman has ever done it in a competition. So, what did the judges rate one of the most decorated women in gymnastics for completing a move as difficult as a Yurchenko double pike? A 6.6. For context, gymnasts are scored based on execution and difficulty, so 6.6 seems significantly low considering Biles’ history-making performance. Tom Forster, a coordinator for the U.S. women’s national team, agrees that the scoring doesn’t match Biles' skill set. “It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what they’ve done with other vault values,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t know why they do that.” The undervaluing of her skill level is a very on-the-nose metaphor for Black athletes across the board.
When the NFL announced that they would be rethinking their “race-norming” practices this week, I was stunned. If you, like me, had never heard of the term before this year, here’s what it means in a nutshell: It is a practice that awarded Black retirees who filed dementia claims less money because it was assumed that they had a lower cognitive function. Last year, former Pittsburgh Steelers Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry filed a lawsuit against the NFL and its race-norming practices. “What the NFL is doing to us right now… when they use a different scale for African-Americans versus any other race?” Davenport said in an interview with ABC News. “That’s literally the definition of systematic racism.” The reasoning for why the NFL decided to discontinue now is unclear, but the organization announced that it will retroactively award money to people who were turned down because of this practice. The fact that race-norming could exist just a year after the NFL pledged to donate $250 million to fight racial injustice is a textbook definition of performative activism. It is easier, and a hell of a lot cheaper, to treat Black people as more than prizes for their athleticism.
In all of the discourse surrounding Osaka’s decision to withdraw, there are a couple of things that stand out to me: First, she cites her depression as having started since her win against Williams in 2018. It’s almost as if people want to purposely ignore how beating your idol, after an egregious technicality, could produce a level of imposter syndrome for a young player—no matter how talented she is. The other is the organization’s wish for the “quickest possible recovery.” As a writer, I understand words mean things. So, it is concerning that when a player expresses that she is in the throes of depression, we value a “quick” recovery over a healthy recovery. Osaka is to my young nieces who Serena and Venus Williams were to me growing up. They are an example of Black excellence on the court and a model of yet another arena we could dominate if we wanted. For Osaka to be able pass that torch on to someone else in the years to come, she has to be allowed to heal herself in her own time.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.