Professional Black athletes navigate a fine line between being autonomous, independent, wealthy elites and undervalued, replaceable workers in a larger sports industry governed by logics of racial capitalism. The late Cedrick Robinson’s Racial Capitalism theory sees the systems of capitalism and racism as interconnected and inextricably linked. Robinson, a political scientist, argued that economic and social values are ascribed to individuals differently according to race. With this in mind, Black celebrity athletes occupy a seemingly powerful, yet precarious status. Journalist William Rhoden used the term “40 Million Dollar Slaves” to highlight the ways in which Black athletes’ accumulation of wealth does not fully alleviate their oppressed status in an anti-Black American society.
Within the institution of sport, Black athletes navigate the ever-present white gaze. That is, their subjective realities, informed by their raced, classed, and gendered selves, are welcome in the professional sporting arena only as long as they entertain the primarily white audience. However, when their actions draw attention to hierarchies of power and inequality, they are deemed inappropriate because the white gaze constrains Black athletes to white imaginations as only competitors. For some viewers and sports officials, anything outside of this role is unwelcomed, such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of racial injustice. More recently, Naomi Osaka’s objection to post-match media obligations at the 2021 Roland Garros (a.k.a. French Open) tennis tournament demonstrates a similar dynamic.
On May 26, 2021, in the midst of tournament qualifiers, Osaka tweeted a message explaining that she did not plan to engage with tournament media throughout the competition. She claimed the interviews negatively impacted her, and many other players’, mental health. When officials fined her $15,000 for disregarding the interview after winning her first-round match, she withdrew from the tournament altogether. In this protest, we see resistance.
Sociologically, a protest involves acknowledging a grievance then behaving in such a way to draw attention to that issue in hopes of changing the conditions that produced it. In this case, Osaka’s protest called out the expectation that athletes should perform for others before prioritizing their own well-being. In her withdrawal statement she wrote, “If the [sport] organizations think that they can just keep saying, “do press or you’re gonna be fined”, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.” Here, Osaka not only articulates her awareness of Grand Slam officials’ attempts to alienate her from her work, but also links her protest to the genealogy of Black athletes who have had contentious relationships with sports media, such as NBA star LeBron James and retired NFL champ Marshawn Lynch. Alienation is a concept associated with Marxian theory that contends, in a capitalist economy, workers are separated or “alienated” from their work in distinct ways. Expecting Osaka to participate in post-match interviews, despite their detriment to her mental health, illustrates efforts to alienate her from the product of her work as well as her identity and sense of self.
Sports media, as an agent of the white gaze, has reified a culture of alienation, which Black athletes have routinely resisted. Within the sport, tennis great Serena Williams has often provided short and pithy responses to redundant and disingenuous interview questions. While she did not outright reject engagement with post-match interviews during the 2021 French Open as Osaka did, her quipped responses still demonstrate resistance to a process that devalues her full humanity—that is, a process that does not want her to bring all of her emotions, thoughts, and feelings to the microphone but instead only wants her to share the parts that make viewers feel comfortable and entertained. That said, it is undeniable that Black sports women have long been agents of resistance against a system built upon legacies of white supremacy, sexism, patriarchy as well as homophobia. In recent decades, one strategy used to keep Black women athletes on the margins of the sporting world has been to position them against one another in an effort to stave off collective action that can lead toward the facilitation of social change. When it comes to Serena and Naomi, for example, an ongoing narrative has been that Williams is the quintessential loud, crass, and angry Black woman, while Osaka is characterized as demurer and more delicate. This was made visible by a controversial cartoon from Australia that depicted an exaggerated Williams next to a literally white-washed Osaka.
However, now that Osaka is reclaiming her power and embracing her autonomy and right to protect herself and her peace, a new (though not so new) discourse is emerging. A discourse in which the Japanese-Haitian Osaka is currently being cast as the villain via the lens of anti-Blackness and misogynoir–a prejudice against women targeted specifically at Black women, buried deeply in the roots of sports and societies across the globe. Now those who oppose Osaka’s decision not to pander to the media, including former tennis great Billie Jean King, see her as shirking her responsibilities rather than actively pushing back against a system that harms her and other athletes of color, especially when they speak up about social issues. The intersection of race, sport, and society is complex, and the recent treatment of Osaka is only one of many instances that highlights this point.
What should also not be lost in this discussion is Osaka’s specific call for more focus on the mental health of professional athletes, and Black women athletes in particular. In more ways than one, news of Sha’Carri Richardson’s 30-day suspension from the U.S. Olympic Track & Field team for testing positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana, reiterates the significance of Osaka’s activism. Although she did not owe the world an explanation, during a follow-up interview about the incident Richardson shared that she relied on the substance to cope with learning of her biological mother’s death from a sports media reporter. This only further exemplifies how sports media members can harm athletes’ mental health. In sharing these personal details about how she handled bereaving while simultaneously preparing for the opportunity of a lifetime, Richardson demonstrated the importance of the issues raised by Osaka.
To conclude, contemporary Black professional athletes’ resistance is premised on the audacity to center themselves and bring their full selves into their work as players. In many ways, this resistance parallels the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement’s call to humanize Blackness in an anti-Black society. This audacity builds on previous revolts of Black athletes who resisted institutional logics that allow anti-Blackness, racial capitalism, and misogynoir to persist. So long as these forces remain embedded in the fabric of sport and society, Black athletes will continue to resist. Notable sport sociologist, activist, and architect of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic protests, Dr. Harry Edwards, once stated that “like a piece of equipment the Black athlete is used.” Nevertheless, they revolt, they persist, they thrive.
Shaonta’ Allen is an incoming Mellon Faculty Fellow in the Department of Sociology and affiliate of the African and African American Studies Program at Dartmouth College. Her research draws on race, social movements, and intersectionality literature to examine how Black Americans perceive and respond to racial inequality and how this resistance varies across institutional contexts. She specifically explores Black resistive practices within Religion, Higher Education, and Pop-Culture & Sport to theorize contemporary strategies for navigating racial and gendered hierarchies. Shaonta’ has research published in Sociology Compass, Sociological Perspectives, and Humanity & Society.
Dr. Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and an affiliate of the Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies programs at Virginia Tech. Her research utilizes a Black feminist lens to examine critical sport studies, food studies, and Black girlhoods. Her work can be found in publications including the South African Review of Sociology, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, and First and Pen.