• Sports
  • TIME100 Talks

Why Naomi Osaka Says It’s Insulting to Tell Athletes to ‘Just Stick to Sports’

4 minute read

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka is challenging the “weird stigma” around athletes who speak about political issues, arguing that it is not faced by other professions.

“Everyone has a vote and a say, I think it’s really weird that athletes get told to just stick to sports,” Osaka said at Wednesday’s TIME100 Talks. “You would never go up to a barber and say just stick to cutting hair. It’s a weird stigma that gets attached and I don’t even know where it comes from.”

In recent weeks Osaka, 22, who is of Japanese and Haitian descent, has been speaking out in support of anti-racism protests around the world sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in the U.S. On social media, Osaka has encouraged people to join Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Japan, which have drawn thousands to the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. In a statement to Reuters on June 10, Osaka also backed calls for NFL teams to hire back Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who has been unsigned since 2017 after he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Osaka told TIME Senior Editor Sean Gregory that Kaepernick’s exclusion by NFL teams was an “unfair punishment for someone who was exercising his rights” by engaging in “peaceful protest”. “If the NFL really wanted to show where they stood, they should at least give him a position that he deserves,” she added. The event also featured AI pioneer Kai-Fu Lee, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana and a performance by K-pop group Monsta X.

Osaka said she had not made a conscious decision to use her platform more to speak about racial injustice. “I’ve always been pretty vocal to the people that know me, but with the coronavirus I feel like I should kind of speak my mind more,” she said. “More people should know what I’m thinking.”

In Japan, Osaka has faced a backlash and trolling for her remarks. Some on Twitter suggested that Japan does not have a problem with racism. In response Osaka pointed to an incident in September 2019, when two comedians apologized after joking that she was “too sunburned” and “needed some bleach.”

Protesters in Japan have also called out a culture of workplace harassment of foreigners, and local Black commentators have condemned Japanese media for “marginalizing and misrepresenting blackness” through racist stereotypes, even during coverage of the anti-racism rallies.

Osaka told TIME that Japan still has “learning” to do when it comes to race. “Japan is a really forward-thinking country and I think everyone just needs to learn what’s acceptable and what’s not,” she said.

The tennis star, who Forbes named in 2019 as the highest-paid female athlete ever, also spoke about how the sports calendar has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Olympic games, which had been due to take place in Tokyo this summer, were postponed until 2021 in March. “I know Tokyo was really ready for this and it’s unfortunate that it’s been pushed back a year,” she said, “But definitely for the health of everyone and for everyone’s peace of mind I think it’s really good that they decided so early to push it back.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that the U.S. Open tennis tournament will go ahead as planned this summer in Queens, New York City borough of Queens without fans in the stadium.

“I want to play,” Osaka said, adding that she understands the concern for athletes taking part. Tournament organizers have promised a raft of precautionary measures to keep players safe, including regular testing for the new coronavirus. “For me right now I’m definitely preparing as if it’s going to happen.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com