One of the guiding principles of capitalism is “if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Embedded in this idea is the promise that you will inevitably succeed so long as you keep trying. What is not as clearly laid out in this pithy statement is that there are innumerable, arbitrary conditions for reaching success for Black women. As we’ve seen this week with Naomi Osaka, this idea rings true for professional tennis. When Osaka rose to the top of the Women’s Tennis Association rankings and started winning Grand Slam tournaments left and right, the tennis world had to make room. Last September’s US Open marked record-breaking numbers with 12 of the 32 competitors in women’s singles being Black women, compared to 2010 when Venus Williams was the only one.
These improvements in racial diversity and representation have not progressed to the point of actually changing the conditions of Black women. Osaka announced last week via Twitter that she would not do press for the French Open and cited both her personal mental health concerns and the general (mis)treatment of her fellow athlete’s mental health. Almost immediately she was met with vitriol- online, in the press, and even in the form of a $15,000 fine. On Monday, she voluntarily withdrew from the tournament.
It is undeniable that Osaka was breaking a contractual agreement to meet with members of the press, the general public’s attention turned to reprimanding and punishing Osaka for her mental health struggles, rather than questioning why the media was creating such a hostile environment, why it is even a contractual obligation to smile and wave for the press, and why the French Open was unwilling to reach some sort of agreement, particularly for the top competitor.
While I do not advocate for unequal treatment, it is traditional for people who are at the top of their field to be able to make requests and bend (or break) the rules, particularly for something as reasonable as Osaka’s request. Not to mention that Osaka is often portrayed as the gentle and sweet counterpart to the supposedly angry and aggressive Serena Williams. Having typically been seen as the more respectable competitor, it was jarring to see how quickly Osaka became disposable. In line with the pet-to-threat stereotype, Osaka rapidly transformed from a beloved fan favorite to a problem. There is no better way to dispose of a problem like this than to pull out the Code of Conduct, or whatever the rulebook is in a given situation. These codes, laws, and regulations are seen as objective and indisputable, and therefore impervious to allegations of racism, misogyny, and ableism.
These rules technically exist for everyone, but the selective enforcement of these rules coupled with the refusal to accommodate Osaka point to a larger problem. In an era in which is it no longer acceptable to have explicit discriminatory practices, using fines and citing outdated rules are ways of punishing and limiting Black women’s success. This is all too common in sports. Just a week ago, Simone Biles received the inexplicably low score of 6.6 for successfully landing the Yurencho double pike, a move so dangerous and difficult that most gymnasts would not even attempt it. The successful execution of this move should only solidify Biles’ status as the best woman in gymnastics right now. Instead, judges assigned Biles a low score (in line with gymnastics scoring tradition) to keep the playing field more even. Logically, it does not make any sense for Biles to receive a low score for simply being better than her competitors. In her words, “they don’t want the field to be too far apart.”
Similarly, Caster Semenya is punished in track for her genetic condition that elevates her testosterone levels. The argument against her is that elevated testosterone levels place her at an unfair advantage compared to other female athletes who have what is considered normal testosterone levels for women. We never complain that some basketball players are too tall or that some swimmers’ arms are too long. The entire premise of athletic competition is based on advantages and disadvantages - how people’s training can improve their natural predisposition and athleticism. Yet these standards change for Black athletes.
For Osaka to be ranked at #1 by The Women's Tennis Association and to be the current reigning champion of two of the four Grand Slam tournaments is all remarkable. Until she withdrew from The French Open, it was not far-fetched that she would win the tournament, placing her on track to potentially complete the Grand Slam in a calendar year. Only 10 women have ever completed the career Grand Slam in the singles category, so it was certainly threatening to see a Black and Japanese woman move closer to the calendar Grand Slam. Thankfully, Osaka is in the position to choose herself and her mental health, but this incident further demonstrates how resistant professional sports and media are to creating environments in which Black women can thrive.
Written by Elizabeth Burton