There’s a backlash brewing in the world of sports. Many pro athletes spent much of 2020 raising their voices for justice: as workers, citizens, and, most pointedly, as Black and brown athletes who have to suffer racism no matter the size of their paychecks.
We have seen athletes give speeches, march, and even strike for Black lives. While being a foundational piece of a new civil rights movement, these athletes were also risking their health by playing amid a deadly airborne virus. The response of ownership was a kind of unspoken agreement: You keep the money rolling in by giving us something to televise, and in return we’ll let you use this platform to speak out. To put it crudely, “If you show up, leave your family, live in a hermetically sealed bubble, and subject yourself to constant Covid testing, we’ll put ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court or ‘End Racism’ in the end zone and say ‘No comment” when fans and the press ask why you’re quoting Angela Davis in press conferences. That cool?”
But now it’s 2021. Many of the masses are vaxxed; fans are filling arenas, and something extremely ugly is in the air. Every night at NBA games, we are seeing mainly white fans dump popcorn on players, spit on their team’s opponents, run onto the court, and, in one case (in what is being investigated as a felony), throwing a water bottle at Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving’s head. After the game, Irving said, “It’s been that way in history in terms of entertainment and performers and sports for a long period of time, and just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo…”
Fan belligerence is the sharp, dangerous edge of the backlash. But it’s not its only manifestation. The sports world has been roiled this week by Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. On the surface level, this story is a simple one: Osaka was refusing to do press conferences because she is dealing with social anxiety and depression. The French Open officials fined her $15,000, and she decided that rather than endure the pressers or fight the fines, she would withdraw.
A closer look reveals something more alarming. Naomi Osaka is not only the second-ranked player in the world and arguably the brightest star in the sport; she is also a fearless champion of the Black Lives Matter movement, forcing the issue into the foreground of a very white, conservative country club sport by winning the US Open while wearing face masks with the names of Black women and men killed by police violence. This kind of stalwart anti-racist political messaging is not something we have ever seen in the history of tennis, particularly not on the women’s side. Yet the executive organizers of the various grand slams shut their mouths and bit their tongues bloody, abiding the fact that during the pandemic the world was watching this remarkable Haitian-Japanese political athlete turn the sports world on its ear.
Osaka now says she suffers from mental illness, and, instead of working with her, the French Open opted to discipline her. Its mode of discipline went well beyond fines. First, it sent a mocking tweet at Osaka’s defense, which it quickly deleted. Then the directors of all four grand slams issued their own statement saying that Osaka was risking banishment from the all-important, highly lucrative tournaments if she dared refuse the media going forward. Their bombastic statement—the equivalent of trying to kill an ant with a rocket launcher—was sneeringly dismissive and cold as ice. It was the “Keep your mouth shut honey, maybe take a valium and relax” of statements.
There is a century-plus long history of tennis treating its women players like second-class citizens. For the few women of color that have ascended the ranks, the treatment has been even worse. Their response is about disciplining Osaka. This isn’t about press conferences. It’s about taking the player who used what in their minds is their platform to go off script and punishing her for it.
This is what a backlash to activist athletes looks like: a generalized mood among white fans combining with conservative owners to send a message that 2020 is over and old hierarchies must return. No matter how messy, they want the wine back in the bottle just as sure as those jerseys and helmets with political slogans are back with the mothballs.
Players, their unions, and allies need to wake up and start to devise a strategy for how they are going to respond, or they will lose all of the hard-fought and historic gains of the past year: a time when athletes took the politics of this nation from the movement for Black lives to the 2020 elections and rocked their core. We all had better watch their backs because elephants never forget.