Black Athletes Teach Us about Grace and Mental Space

Black women are changing sports and we should listen and take note of what they prioritize. Naomi Osaka is the face of Tokyo 2020, as she can be seen on billboards all over Tokyo with the words “new” and “generation” signaling a new face in tennis and sports arriving at one of the biggest sports competitions in the world. She and athletes like her are paving the way forward and bringing new priorities to the forefront while also needing more empathy and consideration from society. But are we paying attention?

The star tennis player, four-time grand slam champion, and cultural favorite recently made headlines when she declined to participate in the French Open’s press conferences and then the competition altogether and was fined 15,000 dollars, just a few weeks ago. To prioritize her mental health and well-being, Osaka wanted to interact with the press on her terms. This move brought criticism, support, and a bit of both from commentators, journalists, and former players in and outside the tennis world. British tennis writer called her decision “hugely destructive and a massive commercial blow to everyone in the sport.”

Personal Brand Rising

It may be because her decision is shifting the power balance between sports journalists and the sports stars they cover. Journalists have very little access to the athletes that they cover but typically had a large part in shaping the story and narrative of these athletes’ careers. However, with social media and the rise of “personal brand” athletes have been able to tell their own stories on their own terms. Osaka is now doing exactly that by choosing what press opportunities work best for her and her mental health. She has even written for TIME magazine and directly addresses this story in her own words. Now, attending press events in Tokyo 2020 is all up to her and as she feels is best. It seems that the Olympics took note with grace emotional intelligence. However, this next athlete’s story brings a bit of irony to this discussion.

“I’m highly blessed and grateful… my family is my everything. My everything, until the day I’m done.” These words were spoken by Sha’Carri Richardson after dominating the 100 meters during the Olympic qualifiers in Oregon. Her exit interview with NBC, moments after finishing her race, cemented her in a different way. “My family has kept me grounded. This year has been crazy for me. Going from, just last week, losing my biological mother, and I’m still here…” The vulnerability and inspirational story that she shared struck a chord with many that watched.  Olympic media embraced her, she and became a favorite to win at the Olympics in the weeks to come. However, her story took an unfortunate turn when on July 2 she tested positive for marijuana (which is legal in Oregon). She ingested the drug while dealing with her grief, and despite the context surrounding her circumstance, grace was not given to her.

Pressures at the Top

Both Sha’Carri Richardson and Naomi Osaka are two black women performing at the highest level in their respective sports. They have opened conversations about how regulations, mental health and a sense of well-being may need to be revamped and prioritized. Marijuana has no performance-enhancing effects that it can provide to its user. Regarding tennis, prioritizing mental health and the agency of players above getting the headline that will dominate the news of the day, should be a priority.

Black women in sports have been facing pushback in more ways than one, they are also held under intense scrutiny when they make choices that are outside of the bounds of what many people are comfortable with or used to. They are praised for overcoming hardship, and a plethora of societal barriers but when a mistake is made or a consideration is demanded, the praise quickly dissipates. They can be the targets of relentless criticism and be seen as wanting special treatment. Our support for them should not be dependent on how comfortable their choices and what they choose to prioritize make us feel. Female athletes of color need to be seen at first glance and heard when they first speak. What they prioritize should be taken under serious consideration and be given the nuance and thought it deserves. It would benefit their well-being and may lift and benefit all athletes and spectators in the process.

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