On Saturday afternoon, soft-spoken 22-year old Naomi Osaka, who was born to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, won the US Open for the second time in three years—defeating Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. Yet, Osaka’s on-court victory represents just a small part of what she has accomplished over the past two weeks at Flushing Meadows, in what was truly a meaningful event.
In addition to fortifying herself as one of the world’s preeminent women’s tennis players, Osaka has emerged as one of the most measured, and perhaps most unanticipated, voices to address police brutality and racial injustice in America. In doing so, she has grabbed U.S. tennis’s racial-justice torch from the late Arthur Ashe in a way that none of the sport’s older players, or far bigger personalities, have chosen to do.
Entering the court for each match wearing a COVID-19 mask with the name of a different African-American victim of either alleged police brutality or racial injustice, Osaka has reminded the nation of those whose lives were unnecessarily lost in recent years due to racial injustice. Moreover, she has conveyed this message simply and succinctly, without succumbing to anger, hyperbole, or even a sense of self-importance in this mission.
Osaka’s actions mark the continuation of a longstanding tradition of American athletes, in different ways, using their platforms to call for social change. Back in 1968, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to speak out for civil rights after placing in the 200-meters at the Summer Olympics. In 1971, self-described “hippy” table-tennis player Glenn Cowan walked onto the Chinese team bus to trade gifts with the Chinese team’s star player. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepenick, among other NFL players, beginning in 2016, took a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.
Yet, Osaka’s approach is unique in some ways based on her seemingly more reserved personality. In addition to coming across incredibly measured, Osaka presented herself when asked about her intent as truly thoughtful and informed—separating her from some of the more unfortunate advocates for change in the world of sports such as former NBA player Stephen Jackson
When asked by the post-game reporter how one should interpret her mask display, the soft-spoken Osaka simply responded “what was the message that you got”—suggesting the point of her masks was not to bring attention to herself, but to “make people start talking” about the real issues facing American society.
With an approach like this, it is nearly impossible for any American, with even an ounce of humility, to respond to Osaka in any way other than to seek to educate themselves.
After Saturday’s outstanding tennis performance, many people will, no doubt, continue to talk about Osaka’s on-court game. However, based on the uniquely humble way that she has presented herself over the past two weeks, perhaps there will be some Americans who were unmoved by previous athlete-advocates who will become more willing to enter into the much-needed, hard conversations about these issues.
If Naomi Osaka, through were words and actions, is able to get even some US Open tennis fans to begin looking deeper into racial violence within our otherwise great nation, it would indeed mark one of the biggest victories in professional sports history.
Marc Edelman (Marc@MarcEdelman.com) is a Professor of Law at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and the founder of Edelman Law. He is the author of “Standing to Kneel,” “Sports Diplomacy at its Tipping Point” and numerous other sports law articles.