By Sophie Rasol ‘22, Sports Editor
Naomi Osaka, a professional tennis player who represented Japan in the 2020 U.S. Open, advocated for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) move ment during her matches by wearing masks featuring the names of Black victims of racial injustice. In 2019, the U.S. Open was reported to have 3.4 million viewers on ESPN. This year, Osaka wanted to use the platform of the U.S. Open for activism against police brutality.
Osaka stepped onto the court on August 31st for her first match against Misaki Doi wearing a mask that said “Breonna Taylor” on it. Tay lor, a Black woman, was fatally shot this past March by Louisville Met ro Police Department officers. They entered her home with a no-knock warrant while she was asleep in her bedroom. On September 22, one of the three White officers involved in the shooting was charged with “wanton endangerment”, not for murdering Ms. Taylor, but for endangering Taylor’s neighbor with a stray gunshot. The two other officers, who shot Taylor six times, faced no charges. After beating Doi and advancing to her second round, against Camila Giorgi, Osaka wore a mask with Elijah McClain’s name written on it. Mc Clain was a Black man from Aurora, Colorado, who was forcibly held to the ground by the police and died after being sedated by the paramed ics. Osaka said, “I still don’t think his name is very put out there compared to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. For me, today was very special in the way that I wanted to represent him very well.”
For the third round, against Marta Kostyuk, Osaka wore a mask with the name of Ahmaud Arbery on it. Arbery, a Blackman, was pursued, while out jogging and shot and killed
in Brunswick, Georgia in February by two White men. Osaka’s post-match interview on ESPN featured videos of Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s moth er, thanking Osaka for her activism throughout the U.S. Open.
Osaka put on a mask that bore Trayvon Martin’s name for the fourth round against Anett Kontaveit. Martin was a Black boy from Miami Gardens, Florida, who was shot and killed by Goerge Zimmerman. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder for Martin’s death but claimed self-de fense and was acquitted. Osaka said, “I remember Trayvon’s death clearly… I know his death wasn’t the first, but for me, it was the one that opened my eyes to what was going on.” Osaka dominated in the round and moved on to the fifth.
Osaka’s mask in her quarter-final round against Shelby Rogers had George Floyd’s name on it. Floyd was a Black man killed during an arrest after he was pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer; his death provoked outrage and protests against police brutality across the country. Osaka said, “When I saw the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder… I felt a call to action. Enough was finally enough.”
After winning her round against Shel by Rogers, Osaka refused to play her semifinal round the next day in response to the Kenosha, Wisconsin shooting of Jacob Blake. Several other professional athletes, including basketball, baseball, and soccer players, also took a stand against police brutality that day by postponing games.
For her semifinal round against Jennifer Brady, Osaka wore a mask with Philando Castillo’s name stenciled onto it. Castillo, a Black man, was fatally shot during a traffic stop for a malfunctioning brake light by Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez is a police officer who was a member of the Minnesota police department. A jury found Yanez not guilty of manslaughter. Osaka beat Brady and moved on to the final round.
Six rounds and six masks later, Osaka entered the final round to play Victoria Azarenka. She walked onto the court with Tamir Rice’s name on her mask. Rice was a young Black boy who was killed in Cleveland, Ohio by Timothy Loehmann, a white police officer. Rice was carrying a toy gun, and though the police later claimed that they had warned him three times to raise his hands, this seems highly unlikely, as Officer Loehmann shot Rice in the abdomen from point-blank range within two seconds of the car’s arrival.
Over the past year, Osaka has become the highest-paid female athlete of all time. She beat Azarenka in the final, claiming her second U.S. Open title and third women’s singles Grand Slam. She used her high-pro file platform to advocate and to urge international viewers to search these victim’s names and learn about what happened to them. At the award ceremony, Osaka said, “The point [of the masks] is to make people start talking.”