“It’s like there’s a magnifying glass on the difference in how we’re treated based on gender, and I think because of that, female athletes are looking around and thinking, ‘Why should I be treated worse? Why should I be treated differently?” said Ms. Cain. “It makes us want to speak out that much more because it’s not subtle, like we’re in different positions or something that could explain the disparity. You realize, ‘OK, this is explicit.’”
And it’s infuriating. Ms. Osaka, Ms. Biles, Ms. Cain and others are applauded on social media, especially by other women inspired by their willingness to put their own well-being and mental health first, but they also face backlash and skepticism — and risk significant loss of income.
Like many successful athletes, Ms. Osaka gets most of her earnings from endorsements, not prize money or salaries. Her high profile started with her accomplishments on the tennis court, and her talent sustains that profile, but she has grown into a respected and influential brand herself. She has often taken risks with that influence, whether it’s wearing masks in support of Black Lives Matter at the U.S. Open last year or pushing back against critics on social media who criticized her for ruining her “innocent” image by posting photos of herself in a bathing suit.
In this case, Ms. Osaka had been willing to pay for her decision to skip media interviews — and accept any fines imposed by French Open officials. She just didn’t want to do any talking that distracted from the game.
Anyone inclined to cynicism about Ms. Osaka’s concern about the media need only watch a question posed at a recent press conference at the French Open to the 17-year-old tennis sensation Coco Gauff: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American, too,” a journalist reportedly declared, bizarrely, before asking, “We could have a final between you and Serena. Is it something you hope for? I mean, 22 years separate you girls.”
This latest episode is evidence that when athletes such as Ms. Osaka and LeBron James are told to refrain from commenting on racism or politics and instead to shut up and play, it has always included an unsaid caveat: “unless we stand to profit off your voice.”
There are ways to improve. As top athletes diversify in terms of gender and ethnicity, sports reporters could stand to do more of the same. And in any case, both parties should treat the occasions when they meet to promote their sport as an opportunity, not an entitlement — and make the most of them.