Naomi Osaka & The Uphill Battle Of Black Women In Sports

PARIS, FRANCE May 26. Naomi Osaka of Japan during practice on Court Philippe-Chatrier during a practice match against Ashleigh Barty of Australia in preparation for the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament at Roland Garros on May 2pm 6th 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

As many rally around Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka amid their recent Olympic exits, revisit our piece on Naomi Osaka’s Netflix documentary and the unique struggles faced by Black women athletes.

This story was originally published on July 19, 2021.

In new Netflix docuseries Naomi Osaka, tennis sensation Naomi Osaka lets the world in on the grueling physical and emotional process behind becoming one of the most famous athletes in modern history. Osaka’s journey is unique in many of its challenges, but she’s also part of an elite group that shares a great number of those same struggles across the sports world: the unofficial league of talented but tired Black female athletes. Like the many Black women in sports before her, the rising tennis phenom shoulders the burden of being an “other” in an industry curiously geared against Black woman with a platform.

Produced by fellow mega-athlete LeBron James, Naomi Osaka tells the tennis star’s story in her own words. The three-part series documents her meteoric ascent to the top of her game, starting with her epic win against sports hero Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open finals. That high profile match was bittersweet because it won Osaka her very first grand slam title, but it also foreshadowed a troubling trajectory for any Black female athlete in the game. During that match, Williams famously argued with the umpire about a call that was made, and the media onslaught that followed was vicious. Despite simply having a moment of understandable frustration, Williams was quickly labeled an “angry Black woman,” berated and abused by sports media and so-called “fans” alike. It wouldn’t take long before Osaka would face some of that same negativity.

The higher she went in the ranks, the more the world paid attention, watching and commenting on her every move on the court — a nightmare for an introverted young woman just starting to hit her stride in her career. As she became the player to beat, the stress began to weigh on Osaka, affecting both her game and her feelings of self-worth. Making the losses even more painful were the endless questions and commentary from the media. After losing, she had to then respond to inquiries about why she seemed unable to do the only thing she had been training since birth to do: win.

“For so long, I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person,” Osaka mused sadly in the docuseries. “Anyone who knows me, knows me as a good tennis player…so what am I if I’m not a good tennis player?”

In May 2021, Osaka drew the line, making headlines by announcing that she would not be participating in the standard press conferences for the French Open regardless of how she did in her matches. The decision, fueled by an ongoing struggle with anxiety, was met with encouragement from many, but others didn’t hesitate to heap insults on the tennis star for the attempt to protect her peace. Osaka was called spoiled and unprofessional simply for respectfully opting out of a tradition that had negatively impacted her. For anyone who’s ever watched any kind of sport, the sudden venom towards Osaka was disappointing but not surprising. She is a Black female athlete, after all.

Not even being the best in the game can save them from being picked apart — before they are champions, they are Black women.

The young athlete’s almost overnight turn from tennis darling to spoiled brat is textbook sports 101 because misogynoir runs deep in almost every institution known to mankind, sports included. We don’t even have to look too far for examples of this specific phenomenon — it’s probably easier to ask which Black woman in sports hasn’t been vilified at some point. Tennis’ treatment Williams is a clear example that may hit closest to home with Osaka just because of the proximity of their experiences within the elite sport. Since becoming a top player in the early 2000s, Williams has faced an unthinkable, endless stream of abuse from mainstream and fringe outlets criticizing everything from her looks to her relationship, to her actual ability to play tennis. And though she’s the best tennis player and arguably the best athlete of all time (with the record to prove it), there is still the unfortunate and misogynoiristic tendency to downplay her obvious skill set.

Need more proof? Although Florence Griffith-Joyner passed the various steroid tests she was subjected to during her career, the legacy of the track star was mired by false accusations of steroid usage propagated by the news. Racist syndicated talk radio host Don Imus notoriously called the majority Black players on Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos” on air in 2007. Gabby Douglas was crucified online during her 2012 Olympics bid because her hair “wasn’t done.” In 2021, Black swimmers are banned from wearing swim caps made specifically for Black hair. Scores for Simone Biles’ near-impossible-for-mortals gymnastics flips have been limited by the The International Gymnastics Federation because they were simply too hard for her “competitors” to also pull off. Judges ruled that South African runner Caster Semenya could only be allowed to compete in certain races if she took certain drugs to alter her natural testosterone levels, and more Black women from across the diaspora are still being held to such regressive regulations. The laundry list of racist and sexist violations goes on and on. To top it off, would-be 2021 Tokyo Olympian Sha’Carri Richardson was the subject of an unnecessary, unempathetic social media discourse fueled by respectability politics after being dropped from Team USA for smoking weed to deal with the grief of her biological mother’s death — a devastating fact that she learned from a random journalist who was interviewing her at the time. With this unconscionable level of media callousness when it comes to Black women athletes, it’s no wonder Osaka would rather limit raw exposure to the press.

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For Osaka and other Black female professional athletes throughout history, being thrust into the spotlight of the court often comes with enough cons to turn one’s very dream into a nightmare. Not even being the best in the game can save them from being picked apart. Before they are champions, they are Black women, and that makes them prime targets for a vicious cycle of abuse and harassment even with titles and trophies and world records behind them.

Though painful, knowledge of this reality helps provide a necessary level of clarity for these athletes, making all the difference between having love for the game and being defined solely by the game. Outside of tennis, of track, of gymnastics, who are they? It’s up to them to establish and affirm their identity. In Osaka’s case, working on her mental health has been essential in rebuilding her sense of self. The more she establishes boundaries with her job (a book we could all take a page out of), the easier it is to see herself as more than just a fixture within the sport of tennis. As a result, she’s been able to allocate more of her energy to the other things that matter to her like fashion, activism, and reconnecting with her roots.

“Honestly, tennis is not necessary for everything,” Osaka said confidently in the final episode of her Netflix docu-series. “I’m doing it — like I love doing it — but there’s more important things in the world. I think about what would happen if the world stopped…what would happen if tennis stopped?”

Hopefully, it’ll be years before that hypothetical ever becomes a possibility for this tennis legend-in-the-making. In the meantime, the hope is that Osaka continues to do things her way, on her own time — just like the Black women in sports before her.

Naomi Osaka is now available for streaming, only on Netflix.

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