Naomi Osaka Reminds Us and Tennis Officials That Athletes are People Too

It should have never come to this.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka is a global icon, earning more than $55 million in 2020 which was more than any female athlete ever earned in a single year. Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, has been a staunch advocate for social justice reform as it relates to people of color, on several levels. But it took her walking away from the French Open before the mental health concerns that she raised before playing her first match, for the officials to treat it with the level of seriousness it deserves.

Osaka speaking out on this is so important, especially when you consider Black and Brown people have historically been far more reluctant to seek help or address the problem.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), the percentage of non-Hispanic white adults 18 and older who received mental health services in 2019, was 19.8 percent. That more than doubles the percentage of non-Hispanic Blacks 18 and older (9.8 percent) who received mental health services.

Percentage of adults age 18 and over who received mental health services in the past year, 2019
Non-Hispanic Black Non-Hispanic White Non-Hispanic Black / Non-Hispanic White Ratio
9.8 19.8 0.5
SAMHSA, 2020. Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Detailed Tables. Table 8.17B

There’s no question Osaka could have done some things differently in making her announcement about not doing media at the French Open and the reasoning behind it. And, she admits as much.

If only the leadership among the French tennis federation had that level of accountability. When Osaka said she would not be doing post-match interviews because of the mental stress she was feeling from the media, she was fined $15,000.

Soon after, the official website of the French Open went into troll mode towards Osaka with a tweet that was soon deleted. From there, the major tennis federations gathered to put out a group statement that alluded to Osaka potentially experiencing additional punishments if she continued to not speak to the media that may include, “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.”

Once Osaka pulled out and it became abundantly clear that it was because of concerns over her own mental health (which again, she raised before she played a single match at Roland-Garros), the French tennis federation went from stumbling their handling of the situation, to being a flat-out hypocrite. French tennis federation president Gilles Moretton put together a hastily-arranged press conference, read a weak-as-can-be statement and, you’ll love this, refused to take any questions from the media—the very act that cost Osaka $15,000 and in many ways set much of this discussion into motion.

It was a straight-up punk move by Moretton.

But I don’t care about him, and neither do most tennis aficionados out there. This is about Osaka getting whatever help and assistance she needs to get back on the tennis court, playing the game she loves, and to be real, does it better than anyone rockin’ a racket.

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But her ordeal is a reminder to us all that when it comes to change, far too often athletes who have captivated us with their ability to jump, run and leap, don’t truly get attention paid to the issues that matter to them, until they walk off the court.

Following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic which led to a cascade of teams in the NBA as well as other professional sports leagues following suit. The fallout from their boycott was the NBA doubling down on its commitment to various social justice initiatives that players had been advocating for, for some time. In addition, an increased amount of attention was then paid to the electoral process which resulted in the NBA taking a more vigorous stance on legislation as it related to social justice issues, in addition to transforming some NBA arenas into polling sites.

Osaka was among the athletes competing at that time who, upon the news of Blake’s shooting, dropped out of the Western & Southern Open in New York. Shortly after she dropped out, the tournament announced that it would postpone play, which you would have to believe was in part due to Osaka’s decision to not play.

Despite all her accomplishments and accolades, this French Open ordeal has been a reminder that far too often, athletes have to resort to extreme measures for their voices to truly be heard and tangible change to come about. “We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face,” leaders from the four Major Grand Slam tournaments—Wimbledon, Australian Open, U.S. Open and the French Open—
said in a joint statement in which they all pledged that they will address Osaka’s concerns regarding mental health issues.

While that’s great to hear—it still should have never come to this.

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