Sports

Tennis Pauses to Protest

Naomi Osaka serves against Elise Mertens during the Western & Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushig Meadows, N.Y., August 28, 2020. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
But will rescheduling some matches solve the world’s problems?

Naomi Osaka is the world’s highest-paid female athlete. The world’s tenth-ranked tennis player earned $37.4 million in prize money and endorsements in 2019. Ms. Osaka was a dual citizen of Japan and the United States but has chosen to represent Japan while living in America, and she recently gave up her American citizenship in order to represent Japan in the Olympics next year. On Wednesday, she announced on her Twitter feed that she was boycotting her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open against the Belgian player Elise Mertens to protest the shooting for Jacob Blake. Ms. Osaka wrote: “Watching the continued genocide of black people at the hands of police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.” She argued that her move would hopefully “start a conversation in a majority white sport.”

Wealthy athletes have never been known for their humility, and Ms. Osaka is far from the only athlete to boycott games. The NBA canceled its games after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court, three MLB games were postponed, as were several MLS soccer matches. LeBron James and other NBA players threatened to end the NBA season but quickly backed down. The Bucks started the trend, but they play in Wisconsin, and their statement, even if you disagree with it, called for specific action. They called on the Wisconsin legislature to “take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” By contrast, Ms. Osaka dehumanized police officers everywhere with her reckless, dangerous, and insensitive “genocide” charge.

She says that her goal is to start a conversation in a predominantly white sport. None of the other seven singles players left in the tournament at the time of her announcement were Americans. Police misconduct is a legitimate problem that deserves scrutiny, but somehow I don’t think tennis players from Belgium, Belarus, Canada, Serbia, Greece, Spain, and the U.K. are going to solve the problem.

Ms. Osaka has a huge platform, and so her genocide charge deserves scrutiny. Genocide is the mass extermination of a people; by any measure American police officers aren’t conducting a “genocide of Black people,” as she alleges. Police in the United States fatally shot 14 unarmed black people in 2019, that number was down 63 percent from 2015. The idea that police officers, many of whom are black and Latino, are engaged in a coordinated genocide against black people suggests that police are inhuman monsters who should be viewed as outlaws, even enemies of the state.

Ms. Osaka’s tweet has more than 400,000 likes. If large numbers of (mostly young) people believe that the police are conducting an extermination campaign against black people, this is only going to lead to more violent confrontations with police, more people resisting arrest and getting shot. Her statement was outrageous, offensive, and quite frankly ridiculous. But the tennis world did nothing but pat her on the back and validate her stance.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King called it “a brave and impactful move,” and tournament officials quickly capitulated rather than defaulting her from her match or asking her opponent if she consented to their decision to postpone the match until Friday. I find the shooting of Mr. Blake troubling and worthy of a thorough investigation and possibly criminal prosecution. But athletes such as Ms. Osaka seek to turn Mr. Blake — who has a criminal record that includes charges for domestic violence, criminal trespass, and sexual assault and may have been reaching for a knife in his car when he was shot — into a hero and the police into death squads are misguided.

Most people have viewed only a short video clip of Mr. Blake’s interaction with Kenosha police, so it’s worth reviewing the circumstances surrounding his shooting. His girlfriend called the cops on him because he was on her property in violation of a restraining order. Mr. Blake had an active warrant for felony sexual assault and the police were aware of this. According to the New York Post, a woman has accused him of sexually assaulting her on multiple occasions. Rather than submit to arrest, he got into a wrestling match with police and put one of them in a headlock. They tased him but still he would not surrender.

His attorneys claim that he was unarmed, but after he was shot, he admitted that he had a knife, and police claim he had it on him during the struggle. Police can be heard saying “drop your knife” during the confrontation. It’s not for me or Ms. Osaka to determine guilt or innocence — ultimately it will probably be up to a jury to decide if the police committed crimes. But the point here is that genocides are carefully planned, and orchestrated, while incidents like this are anything but purposeful.

I also find it troubling and hypocritical that many on the left, including Ms. Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese and who identifies as black, seem to be concerned only about police brutality and not the scourge of violence in black neighborhoods.

I would also like to ask Ms. Osaka why she chooses to live in Florida if police are indeed conducting a genocidal campaign against black people. But I won’t have the chance, and  no member of the media would ever dare to question her genocide claim. They’re too busy applauding her courage. Sports reporters are a woke bunch, and a shocking number of them would rather be covering boycotts and protests instead of games. By contrast, most sports fans want a break from politics when they tune in to games, but unfortunately too many athletes are focused on building their “brands” as social-justice warriors.

However misguided, Ms. Osaka is entitled to her opinions. And I’m actually a fan of hers. I was moved to tears in 2018 when she beat Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open and had to suffer the indignity of a hostile crowd, which was upset when chair umpire Carlos Ramos had the temerity to enforce the sport’s rules to Serena’s detriment. (And please, don’t get me started on the preposterous “I’m fighting for women’s rights out here” defense Ms. Williams used in that match.)

Even though I’m a fan of Ms. Osaka, I’m afraid that when no one pushes back in situations like this,  her irresponsible claims are validated. It’s a mistake for sports leagues to cancel games to make political points, but it’s even worse to give individual, virtue-signaling athletes veto power over whether the contests take place.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised since its publication. The initial published version said incorrectly that Mr. Blake admitted having a gun.

Dave Seminara — Dave Seminara, a journalist and former diplomat, is the author of Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats: Dispatches from the Margins of Europe and the forthcoming Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts.

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