Naomi Osaka and the Changing Power Dynamics in Sports

Thirteen sentences.

That’s all we obtained from Naomi Osaka as she bowed out of the French Open on Monday after inflicting a ruckus over her plan to skip post-match information conferences.

She didn’t communicate these sentences. They had been posted on her Instagram account. Nor did she present something like deep rationalization. A world icon at age 23, Osaka left unclear when she would return to the ladies’s tour. She revealed for the first time that she had struggled with despair since beating Serena Williams in a controversy-cloaked closing at the United States Open in 2018.

Thirteen sentences.

That was all she wanted to rock the sports activities world and to supply one other lesson in the rising energy of athletes to personal their message and set their phrases.

She waded briefly into the water, made a splash and stepped away.

This much is clear. By walking away from the French Open as she did, Osaka became an obsession in the sports world and far beyond.

Pundits, fans, fellow players and people who typically care little about athletes are analyzing her motivations. They worry about her future in tennis and, of course, her mental health.

They project what they want onto her and argue accordingly.

Some commentators say the press goes too far in dissecting athletes. Others say that Osaka is somehow symbolic of a new, far-too-coddled breed of star.

Still others suggest she struggles from being racially isolated, the rare champion of color in a tennis world dominated by fans, officials and a press corps that is overwhelmingly white.

One social media post, assessing Osaka’s refusal to play beyond the first round of the French Open, compared her to Malcolm X.

And yet, once again, as befits a celebrity in our times, Osaka hewed to a minimalist approach. Thirteen sentences, just under 350 words, are all that exist for fans and foes to parse.

It is impossible to know the depth of Osaka’s internal anguish.

But we do know she has had difficulty coping on the world stage at a young age.

Her background — raised primarily in the United States by a Japanese mother and an Afro-Haitian father — gives her a potent allure. Add to the mix a disarming personality and a willingness to enter the fray on social issues that emerged during the pandemic, and she has become tennis’s newest supernova.

So it comes as no surprise that she feels less need to deal with the traditional press.

Such is the way of the modern celebrity — be they an athlete, an entertainer, a business tycoon or a political leader. They are all looking for workarounds, ways to tell their stories as they prefer, usually in short bursts, offering small tendrils of their lives and their opinions, their triumphs and pain, often without the depth that comes from great journalism.

It wasn’t always this way. Think about and the powerful insights he gave in interviews with David Frost — meditations in which Muhammad Ali opened up about race, power, civil rights and the Vietnam War. In tennis, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe would speak at length about the most pressing topics. You knew not only where they stood, but also about their motivations, the evolution of their thinking and their visions of the future.

Athletes still speak out, but they tend to do so on their own terms — very often limited to 280 characters on Twitter.

One of the highlights of sports in 2020 was Osaka’s willingness to go against the grain in tennis and take a stand against racial injustice. She decided not to play one day at a tournament last summer to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, saying on social media, “Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman.”

Point made. Message delivered. The tournament paused for a day, allowing Osaka to keep her promise without defaulting.

She then went to the U.S. Open and again seized the conversation. This time it was with the masks she wore — adorned with the names of victims of police violence — as she took to the court for each of the seven matches she played on her way to winning the tournament.

“What was the message you wanted to send?” she was asked.

“Well, what was the message that you got?” she replied, in a way that was heartfelt, simple and profound. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

And that was it. She seized the moment with a snippet, directed the conversation by giving up little, and by turning the question back on itself.

What was the message that you got? What do you, the fan, the reporter in the media scrum, the casual observer, see in me?

Whatever it is, deal with it.

She said much the same this week in Paris, delivered this time in 13 spare sentences. A strong statement, no doubt, and one that fits with the tone and technology of the present day, but count me among those who want to hear more.

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