Thursday, June 3, 2021

Take This Ball and Bounce

Naomi Osaka did something this week that so many people have only imagined doing. If ya'll-don't-pay-me-enough-to-put-up-with-this-bullshit could be dramatized in some epic, unforgettable way, it is exactly how she called the bluff of the French Open and quit. Actually, it might be more accurately described differently since Osaka paid a $15,000 fine and then quit, but if there is a fancier way of saying "fuck you and keep the change" in French, I would love to see it.

Yes, I support Osaka. I have already shared my thoughts on her situation with respect to her mental health, so there is the other issue of how I keep reading the social media bar association interpretation of employment law and contract obligations. Take it from this lawyer, y'all ain't right. Some of you need to have your heads examined to see if you lost the capacity for empathy after all of these months of social distancing.

I've seen a lot of trash takes, and while I won't debunk them all, I will hone in on the implication that Osaka doesn't have the right to prioritize her mental health as an elite athlete on the world stage. Ancillary to that is the notion that the amount of money she earns, both in prizes and endorsements, means that she earns too much to be exempted from the rules of engagement if she isn't feeling well. To these folks, a hamstring injury is an acceptable reason not to play but crippling social anxiety is akin to forgetting to wear her lucky socks. Suck it up and play...

One of the only reasons why I tune into watch tennis is because I am a fan of certain players. I rarely watch the men play because I'm not as personally invested in any of the current stars. I was in law school when Venus and Serena Williams first began their domination of women's tennis in the late 90s, and I cried like an older play cousin when they won Olympic gold. In the same way that I used to only watch golf to see Tiger Woods play, I would skip the tournaments when the Williams sisters weren't playing.

As a fair weather tennis fan who doesn't distinguish among the various Opens and tournaments, I can only tell you the minor details about Wimbledon (all white attire, in the UK) and that I know where the the US Open is played near the UFOs in Queens. I know that the French Open is infamous for getting precious about Serena Williams' catsuit and the Australian Open is where she learned she was two months pregnant. While many young players can point to the Williams Sisters as their idols, our eyes are on Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauf, and Naomi Osaka as the next generation of Black Girl Magic on the courts. Maybe one of these young ladies will inspire my daughter to pick up a racket (because college is expensive).

In addition to changing the complexion of tennis, the Williams sisters helped to highlight the issue of pay inequity between the women and the men. It has only been since the time of their dominance that women achieved pay parity at the four major tournaments, which is a crucial detail to remember for the remainder of this piece. Hence, it has only been 20 years that women have received equal prize money at the Australian Open, and then 14 years since Wimbledon. Equal pay is still a major issue of contention for women in other professional sports, most notably basketball and soccer. It was just in March of this year that the NCAA got embarrassed by its treatment of the college women via a viral social media post. So for as much progress as has been made, there is still a long way to go.

Therefore, part of what bugs me about the criticisms of Naomi Osaka is this suggestion that she gets paid too much to complain. That if she has any issues that are not satisfied by the amount of money she could potentially earn or by the endorsement deals she has, then she is acting like a brat. Echoes of this viewpoint have been made against male players so one might argue that it is an equal opportunity jab at these elite athletes, but I sense more. Somehow, the impression is that getting paid above a certain amount to do certain kinds of work strips one of their own agency, as in y'all get paid too much not to do your job. 

To me, this is very similar to the complaints about NFL athletes who knelt during the anthem. They get paid too much to complain about police misconduct. Or how the NBA gets attacked for individual player activism (LeBron James needs to just play ball, not advocate for social justice). And if we think we've heard this sentiment expressed in other arenas away from the football field or the basketball court, we have--The Chicks (formerly of Dixie) and Taylor Swift have faced backlash for political statements that were at odds with certain powerful interests. You remember how they were all told to shut up and sing...

Then there is that nagging feeling that some of this backlash is a reaction to Osaka's deliberate and intentional efforts to honor the victims of police misconduct in recent months. We are in a polarized moment that isn't just confined to events in the United States. If she's wearing a statement on her facemask but won't answer questions about her game, that will not endear her to the press. I'm imagining that some snooty French reporter went whining to his editor: Je ne suis pas raciste, je veux juste lui poser des questions sur cet ensemble moche (I am not a racist, I just want to ask her about that lousy set)? 

Enforce the rules, is the cry from the cheap seats, she knew what she signed up for. Well, my Clintonian legal interpretation is that the fine levied against Osaka for not participating in the press interviews is enforcing the rules. She did know that was a consequence of not giving press interviews, so is the problem that her check bounced, or is it something else? 

Is it that sports fans, increasingly feeling the need to express and exert their opinions, feel entitled to get their money's worth, and that includes a sweaty post-match interview? Are there no concessions sold at the Roland-Garros stadium to keep fans occupied between matches? Does anybody really pay that much attention to these interviews anyway? If by skipping the scrum, are the players cheating the fans of something they paid for, or are the players costing the venue or the tennis governing bodies something more lucrative? How much revenue did the French Open lose when Osaka called their bluff and withdrew from the tournament?

There are several stunning aspects of this situation, with Osaka's ultimate decision to withdraw being the most sensible. People who assume that invoking the need to protect one's mental health is some kind of gambit or ploy are the very reason why most of us rarely talk about our struggles with anxiety or depression. For an elite athlete on Osaka's level, the kind of pressure and attention she has received in the past three years since she defeated Serena Williams has to have been overwhelming. And it is a mistake to assume that everyone has the same ability to cope. So for everyone who keeps pointing to the obligations of her job, let's break that down.

As the number #1 ranked women's player in the world, her job is to focus on her game. That means she needs to win to maintain that standing. If you have ever watched a professional tennis match, it is intense. For those of us who watch on television, there is commentary to explain the action, and much of that ponders the mental aspects of the game. What was he thinking when he missed that or what was she thinking when she rushed the net like that? If an elite player appears to be having a rough time, the commentators will suggest that they aren't on top of their mental game. There is no noise while the ball is in play because crowd cheering or jeering is a distraction. Therefore, the casual dismissal of Osaka's anxiety as just an excuse doesn't sit well. If she can't focus, then she doesn't play well which is...her job.

Thus when she released her pre-emptive statement that she would protect her mental health and pay the fine, I don't understand why she needed to provide the Tennis Tournament Overlords ("TTO") with any additional information. Folks are out here invoking HIPAA to avoid wearing face masks in the Whole Foods, but not one of those yahoos has to submit to the kind of drug testing imposed on athletes like Osaka in order to do her job. Yes, and she has to comply with mask mandates, social distancing, and I'm sure she had to get vaccinated because all of that is part of her job.

So again, what is the something else that makes this move so controversial?

For one, it is her choice to exercise personal agency. Whether you agree or not, a person has the right to decide if/when an obligation is too much. How many women walked away from jobs during this pandemic because the choice between being a parent/caregiver and a worker was an uneven split? How many of you have gone to work on days when you were already too tired at 8am for the booshay, so you told your co-workers in advance to give you space, and they did? Or you put on the mask or applied the lipstick/warpaint just to get through the day, and it backfired? So let's not trivialize Osaka's anxiety. She, better than any of the rest of us, understands what she's going through at any given minute.

And obviously for her, it ain't about the money. Because let's go back to where this began with the sentiment that she wasn't being paid enough to go through the motions of something that had a deleterious impact on her game. Or, as those who would brand her as arrogant would point out, let's restate that as she makes enough money not to be bothered or deterred by a fine. And therein lies the problem for the TTO. They don't want this revolution to be televised. 

The governing body in tennis might be the closest thing to an NFL owner, and as we know from the Colin Kaepernick freeze out, the owners can do what they want, even if it is unfair. The league fines players for not giving press interviews as well, but that doesn't get as much attention. In fact, Marshawn Lynch's blunt "I'm just here so I won't get fined" is a meme and a joke.

Osaka's statement was neither. And the fact that Lynch and many other professional athletes stood up for her suggests that the team owners nor the tennis governing bodies are taking the mental health concerns of their players as seriously as they claim.

Times have changed, and the problem with bureaucracies and team ownership structures is their resistance to change. Too many people have bought into the fallacy that traditions are more important than the people affected by them, including those who are willing to follow along. Is it tradition that the TTO is upholding, or is it their ability to dictate edicts to the players? For example, was the catsuit ban intended to set a tone or to send a message? If players are given too much freedom, then who is in charge?

And I must ask the question--if Rafael Nadal had issued a similar statement about the need to protect his mental health, would he have been called a brat or brave? While we are applauding these NFL players for their courage, is anyone taking what they are advocating to heart? Or is that another slick publicity campaign like wearing pink cleats in October?

So while I haven't been naming the -isms because they are implied, I will point out that part of the reason why we are having these expanded conversations is due to the damage we did by never taking the time to properly identify and treat the mental health concerns of elite athletes in the past. What if Monica Seles' stabbing had been addressed differently? What about Jennifer Capriati's addiction issues? Have the years of intense scrutiny and criticism contributed to Venus Williams' autoimmune disorder? Does the TTO believe that by allowing reporters to question players about how they feel that is some form of therapy? 

But let's get back to the money move that Osaka pulled that really set this all in motion. One of the classic ways that people in power assert their authority over us little people is to either dangle money as an incentive or threaten to take away money as a punishment. Plenty of lower ranked players on the circuit who don't make Osaka's money would have just done the interviews. The ability to write off a $15,000 fine is a luxury that few of us have, and for women players not married to billionaires that is a newfound power. But it wasn't arrogance or hubris that Osaka demonstrated by walking away--it was principle, which she calculated was far more valuable in the long run. In addition to the money, she also put her ranking on the line in order to protect her peace. And by bouncing, she started a real conversation about mental health, not just a feel-good exercise for the morning shows. 

For what good is money if it doesn't provide for your basic needs? Peace of mind is a basic need, so let that marinate the next time you get it in your head to tell someone that they should put up with a stupid policy or some form of injustice for the sake of a dollar. The fact that Osaka knows this at 23 years old is game, set, match. 

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