Tennis star Naomi Osaka declared she would not participate in press conferences prior to the 2021 French Open. Reactions to her refusal were filled with anger and criticism. In a deleted tweet, Roland Garros posted images of athletes doing press work with the text, “They understood the assignment.” Early reporting provided lip-service to Osaka’s concern for her own mental health while emphasizing other players, such Rafael Nadal, disagreed with her. Similarly, tennis icon Billie Jean King criticized Osaka for avoiding media since the press helps build the sport. Others characterized her as a self-centered, childish millennial unwilling to sacrifice like other athletes. And after assessing a $15,000 fine for not meeting contractual media obligations, she was further threatened with suspension from other major tournaments.
Such strong reactions suggest her actions are of sociological importance. Moreover, Osaka is not the first athlete to trigger a punitive response for prioritizing themselves over obligatory media duties. Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks refused to say more than “I’m here so I won’t get fined” during a press conference before the 2015 NFL Super Bowl to avoid a $500,000 fine; he was fined $75,000 for not speaking to the media following the NFC Championship game. When athletes like Osaka and Lynch protest against an unfair or unhealthy condition of their employment, it is an industrial action—a protest over labor or broader social conditions. Industrial actions, like these, are struggles between workers and employers over institutional power.
Some observers responded that women athletes are treated differently in press conferences than men and Black athletes receive intensified press scrutiny. Sexism and racism are realities, but the punitive reaction from professional tennis and the media suggests that there are additional dimensions in the reaction to Osaka and other Black athletes that choose to avoid press conferences. Specifically, this illustrates employers’ lack of concern for workers’ health and the cost workers must bear to advocate for their own interests in the workplace, which is magnified by the dynamics of gender and race.
This is not the first time Osaka has engaged in an industrial action. In 2020, she refused to play in a semifinal match of the Western & Southern Open tournament in protest of state violence against Black people in the United States. Although the corporate media tended to call her refusal a “boycott,” as they did of NBA players during the 2020 playoffs, it was actually a wildcat strike, or a work stoppage without union approval. Like the NBA players, Osaka was not agitating to improve her own conditions on the “shop floor,” instead she was taking a stand for racial justice. As she stated:
[A]s 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.
Osaka’s industrial actions threaten the profitability of these events. When industrial actions cause the cancellation of events, then the organizers need to refund ticket buyers and cannot collect from sponsors. Similarly, if an athlete does not show up to a press conference, then reporters do not have the content they expected to write articles or serve the publicity function of sports media. Each of Osaka’s actions present a different threat to capital:
- The wildcat strike was limited in duration and demand. It lasted for one game in order to draw attention to police violence and “get a conversation started.” It also occurred at a heightened moment of support for racial justice.
- Although specific to the French Open, her refusal to participate in press conferences presents a greater institutional challenge:
- The obligation of athletes and coaches to speak at press conferences is part and parcel of the sport-media complex so Osaka’s refusal at Roland Garros has implications not just for tennis but for all professional sports.
- By prioritizing her own interests and refusing to submit to management’s prerogatives, Osaka challenges a presumption of all capitalist labor relations: bosses call the shots and workers should be grateful for the privilege of earning their daily bread. Osaka standing up to management to determine how her body is used undermines that basic assumption of capitalist labor relations.
- Across all industries, management tends to view workers as childlike and in need of, well, “management,” although it is workers’ labor that generates wealth. This view is magnified by the fact that Osaka is a young (23) woman of color with a surname that places her beyond the boundaries of Europe. Osaka’s demand to determine the use of her body and labor power challenges the belief that she should acquiesce to the older white men that run her industry.
- Moreover, as a highly paid athlete, many fans and the media view her as an entertainer who is paid to provide them with an escape from their own struggles.
When viewing Osaka’s actions as labor activism by a young woman of color, the reactions of the media and professional tennis are unsurprising. What makes Osaka so threatening is not the fact she is a young woman, Black and Japanese, or an outspoken athlete on social justice issues, but the fact that she is all of that AND she has the financial strength and autonomy to withstand economic retaliation. Over the past year, Osaka has earned $5.2 million from her day job playing tennis and an estimated $50 million from sponsorship. Since Osaka demonstrated a willingness to pay the fines, the next credible threat was blackballing her as the NFL did to Colin Kaepernick. Osaka even turned that in her favor since she can afford to forgo the French Open and (apparently) Wimbledon too.
Since most workers lack Osaka’s economic autonomy, hence the term “wage slavery,” she does not present a model of labor activism that non-unionized workers can emulate. However, as an extraordinarily powerful individual, she presents challenges to institutional power most of us can only imagine. If she worked in coordination with other top athletes across different sports, as envisioned by the 1967 Cleveland Summit, then she would bring even more power to agitate for mental health, athletes’ autonomy, and workers’ rights.
Jeffrey Montez de Oca is a Professor of Sociology and founding director of the Center for the Critical Study of Sport at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He is the Past-president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and author of Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (Rutgers University Press, 2013). You can find out more about him at https://sociology.uccs.edu/jeffrey-montez-de-oca