What can be seen as a sign that sports culture is healing itself? When Black athletes decide for themselves how they define success as opposed to letting the media do that for them.
In many ways, today’s young athletes would be very smart to follow the template set for them this year by high-profile athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. In other words, do not allow a scandal-obsessed press dictate how they should live their lives.
Following a recent loss at the US Open in New York City, Osaka continued to open up about her mental health struggles. She then announced that she plans to take an indefinite break from tennis.
The key quote in what she said in her post-match presser was when she admitted that winning at tennis no longer brings her the joy one would think it would – hence why she has decided to take a step back from the sport.
Osaka’s opening up about her mental health struggles has been, arguably, the most meaningful sports story of 2021. A star talent who is at the top of the class at her sport losing her luster for said sport to put more emphasis on herself. And even though the powers that be within tennis have shown themselves to be out of touch (as was proven after the French Open), Osaka in many ways has won 2021.
The relationship between athletes and the media has always been a tense one at times, but has been one that both sides understood was necessary. The media benefits because sports will forever be a hot item for the press and athletes benefit because it brings more eyeballs to the sport.
But there comes a point in time in said relationship – as in many relationships – where tensions will rise and what made the relationship seem like a perfect match at first no longer feels as such. In the case of Osaka, her dealings with the media took a downward spiral when she realized she was constantly getting scrutinized on how she performed as a tennis player by journalists who only see her as an athlete and not as a human being.
That is why she wanted nothing to do with post match press conferences after Roland Garros. That is why she feels like she needs to take a step back from the sport as a whole.
In the days prior to social media, athletes really did not have their own voice. Anything and everything that an athlete wished to convey to the public was done almost entirely either through the media or through their own publicists. Now, all an Osaka or Biles has to do is send out a tweet or Instagram post to let the masses know what they have going on or how they are feeling.
In many ways, social media has made sports more toxic and it has also democratized the sports landscape where the Osakas of the world have their own voice sans a middleman. It has also democratized the sports landscape by cutting through the tired noise of the previous sports media landscape that used to define the Osakas of the world as “quitters.”
What makes Osaka a blueprint for today’s athletes is she is very classily navigating through sports and life on her own terms. She is reminding today’s athletes that there is nothing wrong with walking away from a sport when said sport is no longer bringing one the happiness it once did.
She is reminding athletes that they are more than their sport. Just as today’s young professionals are learning day in and day out that they are more than their jobs, Osaka is reminding athletes to not allow the dark corners of society to put them in a box that restricts their identity to only being that of what they accomplish (or not accomplish) within their sport.
While sports may be an invigorating pursuit that ups the competitive juices of those that participate and gives us as fans entertainment, sports at their core are a trivial pursuit.
When the racquets, balls and jerseys are no longer being worn, athletes are still human beings. When we do not see Osaka on the tennis court, she still is a Black woman and will always be so when all is said and done. She is a reminder that we still have ourselves and our inner circles that will be there even when the glitz and glamour of being in the public eye no longer feels so glitzy and glamorous.
This is a chance for the tennis world to look at itself in the mirror and examine how it made a bright young star like Osaka lose her love affair with the sport of tennis. This is also an opportunity for us to give Osaka her flowers because sometimes we have to suffer defeats at our respective professions in order to realize the victories that are the most important.