Naomi Osaka: A new profile in courage

I have profound new respect and admiration for tennis star Naomi Osaka after the recent stand she took on the latest controversial shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.

Just hours after scratching out a quarter-final victory in the prestigious Western & Southern Open, Osaka announced she would not play in the semi-final scheduled for the next day in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Her decision sparked the women’s and men’s tennis organizations and the USTA to join nearly the entire sports world, led by the NBA, in suspending play as a statement against racial and social injustice.

Blake was shot seven times in the back on August 23 while his children sat in the back of his SUV. Like other recent episodes of excessive police behavior, the shooting was captured on camera and stoked the outrage still simmering over the death just three months ago of George Floyd, whose life was choked out of him under the knee of a white cop in Minneapolis.

Osaka’s one-day boycott was a bold move, but I was more impressed by the declarative nature of her statement.

“…before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” Osaka said in her Instagram post. “And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”

The 22-year-old daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother owns her blackness in that statement, much like Sen. Kamala Harris, who proudly accepted the mantel as the  first black woman to be chosen as a major-party vice presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention. Harris was born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother.

I point this out because there are some people of mixed heritage who tend to equivocate when it comes to racial identity, preferring to emphasize their otherness.

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Osaka fully embraces her dual heritage. Born in Japan, the WTA’s No. 10 player who has been ranked as high as No. 1, has spent most of her life in the United States. Yet she chooses to play tennis under the Japanese flag and sees herself as a role model for bi-racial Japanese citizens.

Osaka’s statement also reflects her courage under fire. As she noted in a July 1 Op-Ed piece for Esquire Magazine, she has been criticized in Japan for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd’s death, even joining protesters in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, where she now lives.

“Japan is a very homogenous country, so tackling racism has been challenging for me,” she wrote. “I have received racist comments online and even on TV.”

Osaka told the Japan Times that she tries to ignore some of the trolling, “but it’s hard to avoid. I’m more sad for them than for myself – to be so hateful and ignorant can’t be an easy way to live life.”

Of her decision to postpone her tournament play, Osaka said her goal was to “get a conversation started in a majority white sport.”

She drew kudos on social media from fellow black players like Sloane Stephens and encouragement from tennis icon Billie Jean King, who is no stranger to social activism.

The Western & Southern Open is a big tournament on the women’s and men’s tours and usually is played just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. However, this year the event was held at the home of the U.S. Open because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Open was scheduled to follow.

Osaka won her semi-final match. But she withdrew from the final, citing a hamstring injury.

Since defeating Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open in 2018 and following that up by capturing the Australian Open at the start of 2019, Osaka has reached rock-star status that has lifted her to the top of Forbes Magazine’s list of highest-paid female athletes.

With $37.4 million in earnings, Osaka replaced Serena as No. 1 in 2020. Serena was next with $36 million.

In her Esquire commentary, Osaka said the shutdown gave her time to reflect on what really matters to her. When she saw the video of George Floyd’s May 25th death, she said, and recounted other recent deaths of blacks at the hands of police she decided to become a voice for change.

“Enough was finally enough,” she said.

But nearly two months later, just as there was a touch of weariness in the voice of NBA great LeBron James as he spoke on the shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, who doctors say will probably be paralyzed for life, there was an air of frustration in Osaka’s Instagram post on her decision not to play.

“Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is making me sick to my stomach,” she said. “I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?”

Naomi, that is a question those of us decades older than you are still asking, too!

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