Naomi Osaka – The Intersection of Sports and Politics
When we think of tennis, images of neon yellow orbs and pristine white outfits come to mind. However, 22-year-old Naomi Osaka is changing the game within professional tennis, using her platform to advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement, while in the process of winning her second U.S. Open and third Grand Slam title. While captivating the world with her prodigious tennis skills, she also caught people’s attention with her plethora of face masks, each with the name of a different victim of racialized police brutality. Included were 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was wrongfully murdered in 2012, and 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in her home by police officers this past March. When asked why she wore the masks, Osaka stated she wanted to “make more people start talking.” Undeniably, she reached this goal. Immediately Osaka had stirred conversation across social media platforms and party lines. People have mixed reactions to Osaka’s activism: Hundreds of Japanese people were inspired by Osaka and began to protest against racial inequality in the United States and Japan. Many also brought up the mistreatment of foreigners from Western Asia and Africa by Japanese police, the most recent incident being a Kurdish man who was wrongfully stopped and assaulted. The incidents provoked discussions on racism in Japan and how it is overlooked, particularly in the media.
Simultaneously, however, right-wing Japanese nationalists complained that racism does not exist in Japan and argued that the protests planned by “left-wing activists” would cause a rise in COVID-19 cases. Others also opposed Osaka’s activism, claiming that athletes have no place in politics. Osaka tweeted in response, “I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain…this is a human rights issue.” After all, what gives an athlete any less freedom to have a say on politics like the rest of us?
Though Osaka’s activism is monumental, she is not the first to use her athletic platform to advocate for racial injustices. From Muhammad Ali as a symbol for the Civil Rights Movement to John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a ‘Black Power’ fist at the 1968 Olympics, athletes are constantly speaking up on political issues that affect our country. With the uproar of the Black Lives Matter movement, more sports leagues and athletes have been using their platform to speak about racial injustices against people of color, NASCAR driver Lewis Hamilton and the WNBA wearing shirts in honor of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake are just a few more recent examples.
Sports fans had mixed feelings about the intersection of sports and politics. Some fans were ecstatic to see their sports leagues speaking up about the racial injustice and not keeping silent. Conversely, others believed that sports should not intersect with politics and teams are being too political.
Donald Trump was one of many to voice a complaint about sports being “too political” after the NBA boycott over the shooting of Jacob Blake and advocation on behalf of the Black Lives Matter Movement on the court. He warned other sports leagues, specifically the NFL and the MLB, to not follow in their footsteps and to be more “patriotic.” He advocated for sports leagues to “stand tall for our country and flag.”
These questions remain: What is too “political” for sports? Is this even a political issue? Sydney Green (‘21), a senior on the varsity girl’s volleyball team, argues “It’s so essential for black athletes and athletes of color to come together and take a stand on these things. I think it’s a widespread opinion that sports and politics don’t need to go hand and hand, ‘oh sports is a time where we can come together and ignore all that,’ but that’s just so false. Politics and race…are not the same thing. There should not be an issue with people representing themselves and their values through their work.”
The connection between sports and politics only seems to be accepted in scenarios that don’t challenge the status quo. Donald Trump stated that sports leagues need to be more “patriotic,” but patriotism should encompass movements that change this country for the better. Athletes and sports leagues are humans just like the rest of us and should be allowed to use their First Amendment and speak on political problems.
Osaka speaks out about people complaining about her bringing politics into sports: “You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your TV for as long as possible.” So, despite the backlash these athletes face for speaking up against racialized police brutality and racial injustice, it seems they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.