Naomi Osaka’s capture of the 2020 U.S. Open title felt a bit muted. After losing the first set 6-1 to Victoria Azarenka, Osaka dug in and won the next two sets: 6-3, 6-3. It wasn’t great tennis, as both players spent most of the match seesawing between the best and worst versions of themselves, but it was a gutty, deserved win for Osaka.
The hushed nature of the event continued in the immediate aftermath of Osaka’s win. In a silent, empty stadium, she briefly laid supine on the court to gather her thoughts. Then she got up, collected her things, and prepared for her post-match interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. Osaka answered a few questions calmly and quietly, and then briefly turned the tables on Rinaldi, creating what has the chance to be a truly memorable exchange.
Before each match of the tournament, Osaka wore a face mask emblazoned with the name of a black person who has been the victim of violence in America. During their interview, Rinaldi asked Osaka what message she was trying to send by wearing those masks. Osaka responded by turning the question back on Rinaldi:
Corporate sports media entities have been in contact with athletes making demonstrations for racial justice for long enough that they’ve learned a variety of tactics for politely disarming those demonstrations. Rinaldi was using one of the more tried-and-true methods, which is to ask the person doing the demonstrating to explain the validity and importance of their act.
It’s a neat trick, in that it saves the questioner from having to do anything other than nod along with whichever answer they get. It also lays a trap for the person doing the answering. Refuse to engage the question, and bad-faith critics can immediately begin arguing that there are no actual ideas behind the gesture in question, that the person doing it is childish and clearly hasn’t thought things through, and that the whole thing should be ignored. Answer the question, though, and those same critics will find a way to reach the same set of conclusions by poking holes in any part of the answer that isn’t expressed with perfect clarity and nuance.
Perhaps Osaka has seen this happen enough times to know better than to play the game. By answering Rinaldi’s question with one of her own, she reminded everyone watching that it is not incumbent on the demonstrator to defend the rationality or reasonableness of their act. An expression of anguish at the continued brutalization of black people in America is not a policy position. It is not something that requires explaining or debating in the marketplace of ideas.
Naomi Osaka wore seven names on her face: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice. How did that make you feel? Why?