Naomi Osaka latest in a legendary line of sporting freedom fighters
Naomi Osaka, winner of four grand-slam tennis tournaments, has declared her independence and in doing so is exhibiting interdependence – a refined empathy for others.
Osaka took a stand to preserve healthy boundaries when she declared that for the 2021 French Open she would not engage in the obligatory TV interviews immediately after matches.
Now ranked No 3 by Women’s Tennis Association, Osaka argued that the media system has negative implications for the mental health and welfare of players. She has been fined – as per WTA rules – for her non-participation in the post-game media face-offs and has now withdrawn from the tournament.
International media is abuzz with the latest declaration from the soft-spoken 23-year-old of Haitian-Japanese heritage.
This is not the first time that Osaka has taken a stand which has caused controversy. During last September’s US Open, Naomi conducted a “silent demonstration” by wearing face-masks embolden with the names of a variety of persons killed by police – including George Floyd. She went on to win that Open.
Osaka’s journey follows the tradition of a number of sporting legends. Muhammad Ali famously refused to be drafted into the US military during the infamous Vietnam war, asking: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
For that, the heavyweight champion was banned from any boxing at home or abroad for a critical period of time and his passport was seized.
Others include gold medal-winner Tommy Smith and bronze medal-winner John Carlos who during the 200 metres final award ceremony at the 1968 Olympics highlighted racial oppression in the US by raising their black-gloved fists on the podium. Consequently, these two exceptional athletes were persecuted in a variety of ways for decades before being granted their due in recent times.
The legacies of Ali, Smith and Carlos demonstrate that their efforts were not in vain. Their sacrifices, unfair as they may have been, helped leverage forward progress at critical times.
Osaka is a beneficiary of that foundation; she continues to demonstrate her appreciation and her sense of responsibility to the global community. She has absorbed a sense of independence from her family; her Japanese mother, Tamaki, and her Haitian father, Leonard François, giving, in their words, their daughters the best of Haitian and Japanese culture. Dad coached his daughters tennis as a “never-player”.
Twenty years ago her parents – of median income – set up a school in Haiti for children impacted by poverty in the Island. Osaka has quickly bolstered that vital project.
Osaka is in a position to easily afford the fines being levied for setting her boundaries. This question of what tennis players are required to do speaks to the reality of the hyperconsumerism that influences sports and entertainment. Add to that, controversy is an incentive for media – drama sells. Naomi has sparked a key conversation.
We all are familiar with the stories of sporting and entertainment personalities being consumed by the machine that made them. The list is far too long – but check Chris Hedges on YouTube assessing the life and times of Michael Jackson.
I think I hear Naomi Osaka sounding like a Bermudian: they won’t be doing that to Tamaki and Leonard’s child!
Let’s wish her all the best as she continues her journey.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda