U.S. Open champ Naomi Osaka’s social justice crusade

According to the New King James Version Bible, a passage of scripture from Luke 12:48 states For everyone to whom much is given, from him, much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” When you’re the highest-paid female athlete in the world and one of the best on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) circuit, chances are high that a lot will be asked of you.

When two-time U.S. Open Tournament tennis champion Naomi Osaka began wading into the social justice waters with strong messages against police violence against Black people, it wasn’t required of her to do so. However, the backdrop of the racial justice crusades hammered out by athletes everywhere changed things. The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, brought out the activist in Osaka, who has been candid in addressing police brutality.



 

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” Osaka wrote on Twitter after delaying to play in her Western & Southern Open semi-final in protest of the racial injustices taking place. “And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again.”  

The race melodrama involving police misconduct and vigilante-style actions against Black people has had a profound impact on Osaka. She is a woman of color. She is both Japanese and Haitian. So the burden of this heavy topic was released by Osaka in emphatic fashion at one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world. Racial injustice was the intended target.

September 12, 2020 - Naomi Osaka in action against Victoria Azarenka during a women's singles final match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Pete Staples/USTA)
September 12, 2020 – Naomi Osaka in action against Victoria Azarenka during a women’s singles final match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Pete Staples/USTA)

Seven names. Seven masks. It was the same message that Osaka wanted to convey. That message? Murderous violence perpetrated against Black Americans and people of color, shaped in the form of police brutality or vigilantism, should not be readily embraced.   

By now, most people are familiar with the names of the individuals Osaka wore on her masks during this year’s U.S. Open Tournament. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Elijah McClain. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice, along with the names of Taylor and Floyd. 

Osaka, the No. 3 ranked female tennis player in the world, won her second U.S. Open Tennis title on Sept. 12 when she defeated Victoria Azarenka in three sets. But the social statement the 22-year-old Osaka left behind at the tournament will resonate for a very long time. 

In a tumultuous year where social injustices tales seem to take place a mile a minute, Osaka is both unafraid and unapologetic in speaking out against the callous murders of Black Americans. The masks she wore at the 2020 U.S. Open Tournament would do most of the talking for her. Osaka made headlines everywhere when she wore her masks prior and during matches against her seven opponents.

The first mask she wore bore the name of Taylor.   


September 10, 2020 – Naomi Osaka in action against Jennifer Brady during a women’s singles match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)

Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was pumped with multiple bullets (six by the count of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron) by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department working to execute a no-knock raid on her apartment in the middle of the night on March 13 this year. Taylor’s family reached a $12 million settlement with the Louisville Metro Government on Sept. 15, just over six months after her tragic death. 

Not one of the three police officers who fired shots into Taylor’s Louisville, Kentucky apartment was charged with anything relating to her death. One police officer was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment. After defeating Misaki Doi in three sets, Osaka was asked if there was a message she was trying to send? 

“[The] Message I’m trying to send? Just awareness,” Osaka said. “For me, I just want to spread awareness. I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story. Maybe they’ll like Google it or something. For me, just spreading awareness. I feel like the more people know the story, then the more interesting or interested they’ll become in it.” 

Osaka decided to lead off her mask parade in honor of Taylor because the Black woman’s death resonated more deeply.  

“I would say I started off with Breonna Taylor’s name first because she was most important,” Osaka added. “There are still marches going on even though people don’t really talk about it.” 

A couple of days later on Sept. 2, before she took out Camila Giorgi in two sets, Osaka sported a mask with the name Elijah McClain inscribed on it. The 23-year-old McClain was killed by Aurora, Colorado police more than a year ago on Aug. 30, 2019. 

Police accosted and then used a carotid chokehold on McClain before paramedics injected him with ketamine. McClain reportedly went into cardiac arrest and died a couple of days later. There’s been a lot of drama since. 

September 2, 2020 - Naomi Osaka in action against Camila Giorgi during a Women's Singles match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)
September 2, 2020 – Naomi Osaka in action against Camila Giorgi during a Women’s Singles match at the 2020 US Open. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)

The City Council in Aurora has temporarily banned the use of ketamine by first responders. Several officers on the Aurora Police Department were fired from their jobs because they posed for a photo re-enacting the chokehold that subdued McClain. There have been multiple investigations into McClain’s death. A civil lawsuit has been filed.       

As of yet, there have not been any charges brought against the three white police officers involved in the death of McClain

“For me, I think when I heard about his story it was very hurtful,” Osaka said. “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. I don’t know. I feel like I still don’t think his name is very put out there compared to, like, George Floyd or BreonnaTaylor. For me, today was very special in the way that I wanted to represent him very well.” 

While McClain’s family await justice, Arbery’s family has some solace that the three white men who plotted and took his life are now behind bars and have been charged with murder in his death. 

The 25-year Arbery was out for a morning jog in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was ambushed on Feb. 23 by Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William Bryan. Arbery was shot to death.   

So, for her third match, a three-set victory against Marta Kostyuk, Osaka wore the name of Arbery on her mask. Afterward, Osaka talked about the reaction of people who supported her wearing the masks. 

“I think the responses that meant the most to me are probably people saying thank you,” said Osaka. “And for me, I don’t know, it always takes me by surprise because I don’t know if I feel like I’m doing anything. But people say thank you and I’m proud of you, and for me that’s something that’s really touching to my heart. I don’t know. I feel like when I’m in the moment, I’m not aware of how many people are watching, but when I leave the court, then I feel like — I don’t know. I interact with people.”

The mask-wearing Osaka got the attention of Arbery’s family as well as Sabrina Fulton, the mother of Martin. Martin was 17 when he lost his life at the hands of a neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman while walking home from a convenience store in Florida. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder but got off or was acquitted after using Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense. 

If she didn’t think people were paying attention to what she was doing, Osaka got a major surprise when Fulton as well as Arbery’s father thanked her (ESPN) for bringing attention and more awareness to their sons’ deaths. Osaka said she tried hard to hold back her emotions.          

 September 12, 2020 - 2020 US Open Women's Singles Finalist Victoria Azarenka and Women's Singles Champion Naomi Osaka. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)
September 12, 2020 – 2020 US Open Women’s Singles Finalist Victoria Azarenka and Women’s Singles Champion Naomi Osaka. (Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA)

“Actually I was just trying really hard not to cry,” Osaka said. “For me, it’s a bit surreal. It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’ve doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing. Yeah, it was really emotional. I feel like, I don’t know, after I saw it, at first I was a bit in shock. Now that I’m here and I took the time, I don’t know, I’m really grateful and I’m really humbled.”

After dispatching Anett Kontaveit to move on to the next round, Osaka displayed the name of Floyd in her Sept. 8 match against Shelby Rogers (6-3, 6-4). Floyd, as you can recall, was the victim of police brutality caught on the videotape of a teenager’s cellphone. 

When Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin decided to plant his knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds into Floyd’s neck as he laid on the ground, he effectively took the life of the 46-year-old Black man, who cried out “ I can’t breathe” with his dying breaths. Floyd’s death is why America is now at a crossroads in dealing with police abuse and violence against Black Americans and people of color. 

The death of Floyd on May 25 is why America was hit with a lengthy wave of social justice protests, which eventually graduated to the international stage. With the COVID-19 pandemic in play, the death of Floyd put the onus on everyone to stand up to police violence and systematic and structural racism. 

It’s been an enlightening ride as athletes from every genre took up the activist mantle left behind by their brethren in the 1960s as they protested inequality among our country’s racial discord. When asked what she hoped Floyd’s legacy should be, Osaka gave an emphatic response.  

What do I hope will be the legacy? I don’t know. I hope people will research more,” Osaka’s response was. “To be fair, I know you guys are news and media, but I feel like sometimes the news only shows one side of things. I feel like if people did their research and sort of — I don’t know. Like, do your research first before you say anything about anything, I think. I don’t know what his legacy would be. For me that’s sort of what is up to his family.” 

Floyd’s death is the second high-profile killing of a Black person in the last four years in Minnesota. In 2016, riding in his car with his girlfriend and toddler daughter, Castile was shot and killed by Jeronimo Yanez. The 32-year-old Castile was shot seven times by Yanez, who was acquitted of second-degree murder charges. The St. Anthony Police Department officer was fired from the force. 

After defeating Jennifer Brady on Sept. 10 in three sets, Osaka was asked if she would continue her line of activism at other tournaments to which she replied that she didn’t see that in the cards for herself in the foreseeable future. 



 

“I have no plans,” Osaka said. “For me, I feel like I’m just doing what I think I’m emotionally capable to do. I felt like this was right for me at this time. I felt like this is what should be done. But I have no future plans. I don’t think this is something that you plan out, so…”

Osaka’s mask-wearing tour concluded on Saturday, Sept. 12 when she bore the name of Rice on her face covering. Rice was the 12-year-old Black boy killed by Timothy Loehmann, a white Cleveland police officer as he was playing with a toy gun in 2014. Loehmann was later fired and the City of Cleveland reached a financial settlement with Rice’s family. 

The names of the individuals that Osaka decided to honor are reflections of America’s appetite with gun violence and skin color still being a determining factor who is treated fairly under the law and who is not. What Osaka did was remind all of us that Taylor, Floyd, Castile, Arbery, Martin, McClain, and Rice were more than just a statistic.

They were real people with hopes, aspirations, and dreams. After coming back to beat Azarenka in their exciting three sets to claim the U.S. Open title, Osaka said she would consider meeting the families of those slain that she paid tribute to.      

“Yeah, I mean, definitely,” Osaka said. “I feel like for me I learn more through experiences. Everyone sort of thinks they know, or I actually don’t want to know how they’re feeling or how they felt during the process. For me, I feel like sharing stories and hearing people’s experiences is very valuable, so…”

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