A FORTNIGHT after Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka bagged the US Open, it seems the world has conveniently kept mum over her ‘silent’ protest championing the Black Lives Matter Movement, her way of proving that athletes can be more influential than politicians.
Osaka, whose mother is Haitian and mother Japanese, wore seven face masks bearing the names of victims of police brutality whose names have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter Movement at the opening rounds of the annual tournament.
The talented player was brought up in the US, but plays for Japan in the US Open.
During the US Open finals, she came from behind and eventually beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, bringing home her second US Open win and third Grand Slam title, an impressive feat for the 22-year-old ace.
Her motivation for winning the US Open was to show off the face masks and stir debate on police brutality and racism.
In an interview with ESPN, she said: “For me, I felt like it made me stronger, because I felt like I have to win, because I want to show more names and I want people to talk about it more.”
Her intention, in her own words, was to get people talking about racial injustice and confront an evil that has been silently eating society not just in the US, but worldwide.
The 22-year-old is well aware of her influence, being the highest paid female athlete worldwide, and has millions of followers on her social media handles, thus she is an influencer.
Osaka didn’t mince her words on why she joined the protests when asked what her message was, turning the question around: “What was the message you got? is more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
Her actions will go a long way, broaching a controversial topic in the white-dominated sport, often touted as a preserve for the well-heeled in society.
Pundits of her protests have commended her for bringing to the fore issues that some tennis spectators might be unaware of.
Speaking to the press, she expressed her intent to let people know more about Elijah McClain, who was killed in Aurora, Colorado, in March, after visiting a convenience store while donning a ski mask to keep himself warm.
“I think when I heard about his story it was very hurtful,” said Osaka.
“I mean, they’re all very hurtful, but just the fact of the character and the way he was, just to hear stories about him, for me, it was very sad.
“I think this was a bit different because no one can really paint the narrative that he was a bad guy because they had so many stories and so many, like, warmhearted things to say about him.”
Unlike other sportsmen, who joined the protests as teams, Osaka broke away from the crowd and showed unmatched bravery as she engaged in her solo protest, knowing that all eyes were on her, wearing black face masks with the names, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castle and Tamir Rice, all names that have come up repeatedly as victims of racial injustice.
However, it seems Osaka has stirred a hornet’s nest as most of her sponsors have distanced themselves from her protest, fearing a backlash from the market.
Forbes Magazine reported that Osaka raked in US$37 million last year, and a huge chunk of that money is from endorsement deals with leading brand names.
Citizen Watch Co. dodged a question on what they thought about Osaka’s protest, and preferred to highlight that they were delighted that she won while wearing one of their watches.
Nissan Motor company refused to comment, while Nissin Foods, a famous noodle-maker, declined to comment on her actions calling it ‘her personal matter.’
Osaka only got lukewarm support from Yonex Co., the maker of the rackets she won the tournament using, which said it supported her feelings.
This is not the first time Osaka has thrown her support behind the Black Lives Matter protests.
A week before the US Open finals, Osaka sat out a semifinal match at the Cincinnati Open protesting police violence.
In a tweet a day before the match, she wrote:
“Hello, as many of you are aware I was scheduled to play my semifinals match tomorrow.However, before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. 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. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hands of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it be enough? #JacobBlake, #BreonnaTaylor, #ElijahMcclain, #GeorgeFloyd!” (sic)
It is clear Osaka is vocal about racial injustice and wants to use any platform within her reach to facilitate change.
She turned up in person and marched in Minneapolis, the epicentre of the protests, which were sparked following the brutal murder, in camera, of George Floyd.
She also marched in Los Angeles, where she lives.
Osaka lamented how authorities and the public ignored the issue of racial injustice and the actions by prominent sportsmen to bring such issues to the fore, citing Colin Kaepernick’s case, who was ostracised by the National Football League in 2016 when he ‘took the knee’ during the national anthem.
“Colin has been putting this message out since 2016. It took a pandemic, an economic crisis and a torturous murder on camera, all at the same time, for people to really hear him,” she said.
“It shouldn’t have been that way. If the NFL wants to show that they really care, the first thing they should do is take a knee together and give Colin his job back.
“That some people have said we as athletes should stick to sports is really insulting.”
As a result of her stance, Osaka has been at the receiving end of internet trolls, who have ‘advised’ her to ‘stay in her lane’, something she has responded to using satirical GIFs.
“I probably shouldn’t read all the trolling but it’s hard to avoid,” said Osaka, who has over a million followers on Instagram.
“Using humor is definitely one mechanism to expose these people … Calling them out for their ignorance and racism is also worthwhile sometimes.
“I’m more sad for them than myself — to be so hateful and ignorant can’t be an easy way to live life.”
Osaka noted that she was delighted that Japan had joined in the Black Lives Matter protests denouncing racism and racial segregation, a social ill that requires confrontation worldwide.
She also expressed bewilderment at the NHK which released an animated video that sparked outrage over its depiction of black Americans, consequently, forcing the NHK to back down and offer an apology.
Osaka retweeted the public broadcaster’s video with a GIF expressing bewilderment.
“We have been trying for hundreds of years and a change is long overdue,” she said.
“I do think this time there is a different feel and energy, and the protests are so far reaching. There have even been BLM marches in Japan! That makes me so happy.
“So I’m hopeful for change, I’ll keep campaigning for change, and I demand a better future for the next generation.”