Osaka and Gauff should not be discouraged from their protests | Tumaini Carayol | Sport

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Osaka decided that it was time to eradicate her shyness once and for all. It was exhausting, she said, missing out on moments because she was too terrified to speak in the presence of people she admired. Her options for socialising limited in quarantine, she set up a series of interviews with players. Before long, fellow players Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Gaël Monfils and Iga Swiatek were her subjects. “I’m coming for every tennis reporter’s neck,” she said.

On Saturday afternoon Osaka’s new reporting skills were put to use on Instagram as a follower jumped into the comments section with criticism and accusations. After claiming that Osaka, who has already amassed a fortune after only a few years at the top, would “loot everything”, he ended with a lecture: “Martin Luther King would be disappointed in you people.” Osaka responded with sharp and concise questions: “You people? Who is you people? Just for clarification.”

In the post concerned Osaka had documented the time she spent this week among protesters in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed after being apprehended by police. Osaka, 22, took photos of Floyd’s memorial and stood alongside crowds in daylight before authorities dressed for war in camouflage gear with big guns. She captioned one photo: “Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.” On Twitter, she had some more thoughts: “It’s funny to me that the people who wanna wear chains, blast hip hop in the gym, attempt to get dapped up, and talk in slang are suddenly quiet right now.” She was questioning why those who furiously consume black culture in the United States do not value black lives.

It was no surprise to see another player arrive in the Instagram comments shortly after: Coco Gauff, whose green career is already interwoven with Osaka’s after Gauff followed up their tearful union at the US Open by beating Osaka in the Australian Open in January. Gauff, 16, had already published her own content in the form of a TikTok video. Her face shrouded by a hoodie, she captioned her video: “This is why I am using my voice to fight against racism.” After listing the familiar names and photos of other black men, women and children killed in police custody before Floyd, Gauff asked a simple question: “Am I next?”

Osaka and Gauff are the two most prominent young stars in the biggest women’s sport in the world. Osaka is the face of the Tokyo Olympics and just over a week ago Forbes announced her as the highest paid female athlete of all time last year having earnt $37.4m and acquired 15 brand endorsements. Gauff’s impact in such a short time is unprecedented in recent years. Since her Wimbledon breakthrough, she has been the focal point of every tournament she has entered and makes a lot of people a lot of money. If her career matches up to even a fraction of her hype, she will be a superstar.

Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka

Coco Gauff shakes hands with Naomi Osaka after beating her in this year’s Australian Open. Both have been vocal in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Photograph: Juergen Hasenkopf/Shutterstock

Their statements were a reminder of Ian Wright’s guest appearance on No Signal two weeks ago, a black-owned radio station that has amassed a big following during quarantine. As he joyously threw down classics from Luther Vandross and Mark Morrison and bantered with other hosts, Wright paused to point out that he had not been able to speak with such freedom during his playing career. “It’s great to be among the culture,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of agents, a lot of people that’ve kept me away from the culture. And now [I’m] a really cultured black guy, knows his stuff. I missed people, I missed being amongst the community.”

Wright’s comments underlined what we already know about celebrities. The simplest way to ensure that the money flows is to make sure that an athlete, a brand, is palatable to as many people as possible. For black athletes, they can easily feel silenced from speaking out on social issues or isolated from their own culture.

In women’s tennis, coaches, agents and other team members play an enormous role in the development of young players, so it is notable that although an increasing number of black players have found greater prominence, there are few black coaches or agents. As if to illustrate this dichotomy, a tweet from Sascha Bajin, formerly Serena Williams’s longtime hitting partner who then coached Osaka as she rose to No 1 in the world rankings, went viral after he stated that “colour isn’t an issue” in Europe.

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Osaka’s Instagram post has since been deleted and Gauff’s post on Twitter temporarily disappeared. Gauff emerged on the tour, in Wimbledon qualifying last year, determined to use her voice before she even had an audience. “I’m not going to encourage her, when she gets there, to stick her head in the ground and ignore social issues,” her father told the New York Times then. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that there are people with a financial stake in Gauff’s success who would rather she did not roll up in a hoodie in front of a camera, questioning whether she may be the next black American to be killed by police.

As Osaka continues to find her voice, both politically and personally, it is also not hard to imagine that attending rallies protesting against police brutality is not appetising to some while she is incessantly marketed as the biracial player who crosses cultures and can appeal to everyone. A simple wish is that both Gauff and Osaka continue to do what they have done so well in their young careers: saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

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