June 7, 2021
Naomi Osaka making the decision not to talk to the press after games, during the Roland Garros tournament, citing her mental health as one of the reasons, started a conversation that I hoped would get us closer to what we have pretended to do in recent years: acknowledge the humanity of athletes regardless of their fame, success, and get real about the role we play in making those spaces unsafe for them. It didn’t. Instead, it showed me how far we still have to go and how far off target we are when directing our displeasure.
Since the NBA playoffs have started, we have seen several instances of “fans” going overboard in their fandom and maybe the fact that some of them have been banned from the arenas (statements from Utah Jazz and New York Knicks) and at least one of them was arrested and charged (statement from Boston Celtics) will make a dent and deter others from emulating these disgraceful and dangerous behaviors. The problem is much bigger and it’s time we talk about it.
People feel comfortable verbally and at times physically abusing athletes at games because they are emboldened by the feeling they get as often faceless keyboard warriors which shield them from consequences and more often than not a behavior rewarded with likes and retweets. And, it certainly helps when members of the media and people with large platforms engage in similar behavior, validating those “jokes”.
Trae’s hair is a joke. LeBron hair is a joke. KD’s hair is a joke. Of course, it’s harmless, they are multimillionaire athletes. They can take it. Their hair is still isn’t a joke, though. And using it as the first thing to go to when it’s time to criticize them is very symptomatic of the type of culture we are in and how unkind we are to others under the guise of humor, banter, or trash-talking. I admit to personally partaking in the laughter when LeBron made a video after cutting his hair shorter than usual and poking fun at himself over whether he should let it go and go bald. I felt comfortable laughing because it came from him. I find no joy, no pleasure, and truly see nothing funny in the incessant need to remind these athletes of things that they would fix if they wanted and needed to, and things that have nothing to do with their basketball skills. I am generally not one for whataboutism, I feel like we do it too much and often to make points that would stand on their own, without having to bring someone else into the mix. But, here, I am going to break that rule and do it. What if they were women and we talked about their hair in that way, day in and day out. Of course, some would find it hilarious and harmless – it’s just a joke – but when you really look at it and imagine yourself and millions of other people with small and big platforms throwing these comments online to women on social media or, just like with Trae Young, joining in as an entire arena as you all chant “Trae is balding”. Think about it for a minute. Why is it ok to yell that at Trae but would be so blatantly inappropriate to do it to Jewell Lloyd, Sabrina Ionescu or Chennedy Carter. Yes, Trae is a pro player and he talks trash but he is also a young man who may feel self-conscious about being compared to a patchy-haired lollipop. It might not bother him, but if it does, would he ever say it out loud? Just so that it turned into a debate about how “soft” he is for feeling self-conscious. I raise the same question about LeBron and Kevin. They might not feel any particular way about those “running jokes”, but what if they do? What players say to each other on the court is one thing and there are things in place in the league to curb language that goes over the line. What we – those of us on the outside – namely fans and media – do and say about them and to them is another matter. We are not entitled to bullying athletes, ever. Not for attention, not to go viral, nor for ratings.
Who among us has never felt insecure or self-conscious about something? We all have and the last thing we want when it happens is for others to pick up on it and harass us about it. Fortunately, most of us are in positions where our looks and every move are not out there for the world to see as we do our job. Those who are under scrutiny at their jobs do whatever they can to go by without being targeted for these insecurities. That is not part of their job and they should not have to, but, we, as a society, force them to. It’s the price they pay for doing what they love and/or are good at. These comments and “jokes” are harmless until they are not. Are those dishing them out willing to take responsibility for the harm, when it eventually comes? Or will we, as we traditionally have, blame the victim and move on to the next?
When Marshawn Lynch spent Superbowl 49’s Opening Night (formerly called Media Day), seated at his podium answering “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” We loved it because it was Marshawn and he always does things his way. Nobody stopped to ask why he would not want to talk to the media, which was part of his duties and especially during the week leading to the biggest game of the year. It was Marshawn being Marshawn. But what does that mean? This moment became for the culture, it became a moment in sports media, and it became a meme we love to use. It’s only when he retired, the 2nd time, with the Seahawks, and used his exit press conference to tell players – Black players in particular – to “take care of (their) mentals and chickens” that it started to make sense to some. That, too, became a moment in sports media and many spent days dissecting the imperfect grammar and the basic message sent. Marshawn being Marshawn. Only, there was nothing basic about this message and those to whom the message was intended got exactly what Marshawn was telling them: protect your mental health and your money. When he said he “was here so (he) didn’t get fined”, that’s what he was doing, too. Marshawn being Marshawn. He protected his money by not being fined and protected his mental health by not talking to the media when he did not feel like it. He sat during the national anthem and never explained why. Marshawn being Marshawn is doing things your way, doing what is right for you, not explaining more than you absolutely have to, and bringing others with you.
Kyrie Irving took days off during the NBA season and was vilified for it, told he wasn’t committed. The media asked him about his “mood swings”, criticized his desire not to play in the bubble last year, mocked his tradition of saging the arena before he plays and the Indigenous stick he carries with him, and scoffed at him for mentioning racist incidents on the court in Boston. Danny Ainge, the (now former) President of Basketball Operations of the Boston Celtics even went out of his way to discredit the comments (Danny Ainge’s remarks about racism at the TD Garden). Kyrie being Kyrie. He paid the salary of WNBA players who opted out of last season in the bubble, some to focus on social justice, to make sure they could do what they needed to do. He did that and the media – save for reporters covering the WNBA – glossed right over it. Kyrie being Kyrie is being a Black man in the public eye willing to talk about some of his struggles with mental health, paying homage and giving space to his Indigenous ancestry and culture, standing up for fellow ballers in the WNBA, making sure they were taken care of and their voices amplified.
Naomi Osaka told us all of her intentions and her reasons for not wanting to participate in press conferences at the French Open before it started, and it wasn’t enough for many. She agreed to pay the fines, and it still wasn’t enough. She asked that the fines be donated to charity, and again, it wasn’t enough. Instead, she was told she was whining and she should do as she was told. How dare she dictate the terms of her participation within the rules, as written? She dared and they threatened to change the rules and kick her out of the tournament, and possibly future ones (Statement from the 4 major tournaments). And then she withdrew (Osaka’s statement) and went into way more details than any of us needed or deserved to know about her mental health, and why it was important for her to step away. She protected her mentals. Naomi being Naomi. For those who love and benefit from the status quo, that means being entitled, not knowing her place and messing up match-ups in one of the most important tournaments in the world. That also means depriving them of more fodder for their pieces and on-air comments. Naomi being Naomi. To me, it means standing up for what is right even if it makes others uncomfortable, not accepting things just because that’s the way they always were, walking in the footsteps of other Black women in this sport (and beyond) who the establishment tried to keep in line, representing her Haitian and Japanese heritage proudly everywhere she goes, it’s becoming the face of a sport that historically looked nothing like her and doing it on her own terms, showing that the strength of athletes is also in their vulnerability.
We say we want athletes to be honest rather than robotic and scripted-sounding, but we blast their honesty when it inconveniences us, and we never take the time to wonder whether those who sound rehearsed are this way because that is how they protect themselves. Why do so many athletes only speak about their struggles with mental health (even health in general) after their career is over? Why do even more never speak about these struggles and it is in tragedy that the truth is revealed?
We can see what is going on and choose to bury our heads in the sand, or we can take a real and honest look at what we mean when we talk about mental health, when it comes to athletes (whether they are unpaid labor or professionals), and whether we are ready to accept, but most importantly embrace, that if we do genuinely care about their well being, it cannot be on our terms and it will come at the expense of our entertainment.
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