Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
I suffer from periodic bouts of depression. Thankfully, over the years I have developed mechanisms to deal with my mental and emotional health disturbances. Therapy, although costly, has served me well. Church and prayer have been both cost-effective and strong in helping me combat negative emotions and thoughts. I have my husband, my family, friends and co-workers. It continues to be a struggle — better yet, a journey.
Although I am on an upswing, I am triggered by what is happening to Naomi Osaka and her forced withdrawal from the French Open tournament earlier in late May, coincidentally the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month. The war against mental and emotional health wages on with yet another shot to the dome.
The fact is that Roland-Garros forced Naomi to weaponize her own mental health. They forced her to choose between stepping out past what she is very transparently and honestly struggling with, and loving her job and the game of tennis. It is a sick and false dichotomy forced upon people in this country, Black people — Black women — especially.
Atop of her other major wins, being extremely vocal both on and off the court against police brutality, even taking part in social justice uprisings, it has been a long year for Naomi. When putting all of that together with the pandemic, along with her own social anxiety, it actually makes sense that she may need a slight mental break. But instead of trying to work with her and understand her, the French Open has broken her all the way down now that she has forcibly sat herself out in the name of self-preservation.
Naomi loves the game plenty. Naomi loves her job of entertaining us with her athletic dominance. None of that is lessened or taken away due to a mental health disturbance, and yet they have made it about her ability to play.
Why are Black people continually expected to do all that is asked of them and more, even things that are completely unnecessary, and are hit financially when asking for even a little bit of acknowledgment and accommodation just to make it through to the next day? They want to take away our power, Naomi’s power. They know that she could be well on her way to another major win. So they are taking whatever chance they get to impede her.
I hate this is happening to Naomi. However, none of this is new.
As a Black educator of kindergarten students, I am constantly torn between not wanting to re-traumatize my students by talking about everything that is happening in the world, and not wanting to ignore what’s going on. I’m often expected to go into work and teach the youngest and most innocent among us while fuming internally and mentally from the traumas of the world. I, like Naomi and so many others, am so tired of being torn and at war with not only the world but also ourselves. It sucks. Unlike Naomi, however, I cannot afford the fines and further loss of revenue during a sabbatical for my mental health.
Naomi will most likely be fine financially. The fact that she could afford the fine imposed on her, one imposed simply as a form of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) flexing its proverbial muscle, should not be used as a punchline or as a lesser determinant of the gravity of what is being done to her. She will be OK without the prize money, but she should not have been forced to make this choice. Nobody should be forced to choose between their mental health and the confines of their “job.”
So many other players such as Serena Williams, Russell Westbrook and even LeBron James have also been hit with fines after either refusing or “behaving inappropriately” during a postgame conference. It is a total lack of regard for players whose talent is monetized and publicly consumed, and yet are still forgotten about as humans in need of rest and/or a dislike of the media. They, like so many of us, should be able to do their jobs and go home.
As someone on Twitter pointed out, players are told all the time to “shut up and play.” Ironically, that is literally what Naomi asked to be able to do. But when it is requested and not mandated it is an issue. Besides, if holding press interviews is that important for revenue, then why not offer athletes more money right there on the spot. “You want it done, then pay me” always works in my book. Let’s not pretend press journalists are the easiest to deal with; let us all not forget the extremely awkward and inappropriate interview Naomi endured last year about a mask associated with Black Lives Matter.
It is the idea that “she should’ve just done her job” that’s part of the problem. Be very clear that she wanted to do her job — and she was doing it well. What she did not want to do was the extra-ness associated with it.
I don’t care what any major sports organization says, interviews are not necessary. Athletes being forced to subject themselves to media, particularly after losses and other embarrassing moments, is a humiliating spectacle. It is the head honchos flexing their notorious and self-imposed power muscles to force performative behavior under the guise of “professionalism” and “professional responsibilities.”
Unfortunately, and as usual, (Black) mental health pays the ultimate price. Naomi could be playing right now, pushing to endure forced-upon press circuits and slowly damaging herself in the process. Even in her withdrawal, she has to prepare herself for the naysayers who believe that she needed to shut up and do what they want her to. But ultimately, there is no winning for her, as there is never a 100% correct path of action for anybody Black speaking out. The best that she can do is minimize the damage.
Naomi taking some time off is indeed a step in the right direction. I just want people to let her live. I want Black women with bonnets on their heads to be allowed to live. And I for one will speak up for her, and with her, with every breath in my Black and mental health-impaired body.