Naomi Osaka has been taking her own stand for social justice and racial awareness, but unlike movements inside the NBA and WNBA, Osaka is making her stand alone. The world No. 10 has been sitting out events and taking the court wearing masks with the names of citizens who have died to police violence.
It isn’t simply Osaka’s actions that make her protests unique, but the bravery in which she’s doing them. While players in basketball have been doing similar things, they benefit from having teammates beside them to diffuse the focus. Osaka is taking the court, with all eyes on her, knowing the attention will after her matches will be on the issue — and that’s exactly what she wants.
One week ago Osaka announced she would sit out a semifinals match at the Cincinnati Open to protest police violence.
Now her protest has morphed in the U.S. Open, choosing wearing masks as she takes the court with the names of Breonna Taylor and most recently Elijah McClaim, both of whom were killed by police. With these actions came recognition — and questions, as she used her stature as an athlete to elevate important issues. On Wednesday she explained about wanting the world to know more about McClain, who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado in March, after going to a convenience store wearing a ski mask — which he was wearing to prevent getting cold.
“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 that 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.”
Osaka’s stand is critically important, especially in tennis. While the NBA and WNBA are dominating the majority of sports headlines at home, much of the world is being first introduced to these issues through tennis. Its position as a primarily a global sport, and a traditionally white-dominated one at that, means that not only is Osaka making an impression, but with people who otherwise might be unaware of these issues.
Much of the tennis world has been silent. The U.S. Open is allowing Osaka’s protests, but there aren’t any individuals taking a stand remotely close to what Osaka is doing. The closest is Milos Raoncic, who voiced his support for disruptive actions, but hasn’t taken part in any himself.
“I think real disruption, I think that’s what makes change,” he said. “I think a lot of real disruption is caused by affecting people in a monetary way, and that can force some kind of change. So I’m hoping with what the NBA does, and I’m hoping that we, at least on the men’s tour as well as the women’s, we band together and we show our support, because there is many people that are not being treated fairly are being disrespected, having to live in fear, a lot of things that I have never had to experience.”
Until wider action is organized Osaka will continue taking her brave and unprecentented action alone. While she may not garner the attention of the NBA and WNBA, it’s important to recognize the bravery of her actions. Every time she walks out of the tunnel people are talking, not just about her protests, but the people whose names are on her face masks. Lives cut short by violence, and the greater need for reform. That’s what being an influential athlete is all about.