A Tennis Legend’s Unforced Error

Earlier this month, tennis champion Naomi Osaka explained that she would not participate in post-match interviews during the French Open. The pressure of the game was enough. The scrutiny of the press, a fear of public speaking, and a long struggle with anxiety and depression represented a clear and present danger to Osaka’s health. She made her statement, and she kept her word.

The Grand Slam organization fined her $15,000 after her first violation. The rules, they said, “ensure all players are treated exactly the same.” Osaka ultimately withdrew from the French Open for her own health. Treating everyone “exactly the same” isn’t the same as being inclusive.

A Tennis Legend’s Unforced Error

In 1973, Billie Jean King fought to be treated exactly the same in the sport of tennis. In the Battle of the Sexes, she showed that she could defeat a male tennis champion. But did she, as ESPN suggests, “win for all women“? I think not.

She took to Twitter to remind Osaka that she must “make herself available” to the press. This seemingly innocuous advice suggests that Osaka lacks agency and is not entitled to set boundaries for herself. “Be available to the press. Toughen up.” In other words, be complicit in your own abuse.

It reeks of the tightrope young women are constantly asked to walk:

  • – “Be available, but not too available.”
  • – “You’d be prettier if you’d smile.”
  • – “You knew what you were getting into. You were asking for it.”

In short, King’s advice says, “You must accept that you will be abused, that you deserve to be abused, and that your suffering is nothing compared to how others may benefit from it.”

What good is equal treatment if that treatment is abuse? Changing the sport requires something to actually change.

Missing the Baseline for Decency

Billie Jean King could have remembered what it was like for her when everyone wanted her to fail because she was different. She could have summoned empathy and wanted better for a young woman who came after her.

Ms. King could have thought critically about the parallels between patriarchy and white supremacy. She could have imagined the intersectionality and oppression experienced by a young Black, Japanese woman in a moment defined by its anti-Black and anti-Asian violence.

Ms. King could have considered for a moment that the pressure of athletic performance compounded with the pressure of media savvy in an always-on news cycle would be exacerbated by someone who is shy, let alone someone with a disclosed anxiety disorder.

Ms. King could have chosen allyship by speaking up for Naomi Osaka. She could have chosen compassion. Or kindness. Or even, at the very least, silence. But she chose to side with the entitled machine of racism-, ableism-, and patriarchy-for-profit.

The tennis legend should be ashamed. She spent decades as an icon of what women can achieve. She chose to serve as a reminder of how often (white) women choose betrayal over sisterhood. Naomi Osaka is a champion who dared to prioritize her own well-being. In contrast, Billie Jean King is a coward who chose her own comfort.

Raise a Racket!

Before we think we are above such behavior, we must ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions:

  • – Did I see someone struggling within my own environment and sit on the sidelines?
  • – Have I denounced someone for failing to follow “the rules” that were designed to keep them complicit in their own abuse?
  • – Did I fail to speak up, challenge the system, or offer compassion?
 

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