Naomi Osaka; Serwer on Republicans

Bloom Briefing 61: What Naomi Osaka's French Open Exit Shows Us About Racism and Sexism

This week’s Bloom Briefing focuses on Naomi Osaka’s French Open exit, Adam Serwer’s latest piece on American democracy, and a statement of concern by a group of scholars of democracy.


Naomi Osaka’s French Open Withdrawal

Naomi Osaka took a stand for mental health this week by withdrawing from the French Open rather than attend press conferences.  She was prepared to pay the fines the tournament imposes on those who don’t partake in the obligatory events, but apparently the French Open decided its own imposed sanctions for violating off-the-court rules weren’t sufficient.  Threatened with expulsion, Osaka withdrew rather than leaving the decision up to the tournament. 

Of course, professional sports (and tennis in particular) have a long and ongoing history of racism and sexism, so the fact that it was a Black woman who was the lightning rod feels less like a coincidence than an inevitability.  Professional athletes are regularly asked insulting questions, and when the professional athlete is not white and not male, the insulting nature of those questions often becomes sexist and/or racist… like a reporter at the French Open suggesting that Coco Gauff is only compared to the Williams sisters because of her race.

Even when the questions themselves aren’t sexist or racist they are often about sexism or racism.  “Sepp Blatter said that women’s soccer players should wear shorter shorts to attract more viewers to the game.  What do you have to say about that?”

Osaka decided that for her to be at her best, she needed to avoid such exogenous and unnecessary distractions.  There was a penalty for non-compliance with press conference responsibilities that she was prepared to pay in order to make herself more competitive on the court. 

Shouldn’t the fact that she was willing to pay $15K per skipped press conference because she thought that would make her play better be alarming to, well, everyone?  And what does it say about the tournament organizers that they preferred to disqualify a Black player for not subjecting herself to the racism of the media?

The whole episode also raises serious questions about the value (or lack thereof) of press conferences.  Athletes no longer need the media to communicate with the public—they can do that directly on social media.  That turns the media from scribes to needlers.  To add value, they have to present information to the public that the athlete would rather not share.  Hence the racist and sexist questions. 

Jonathan Liew makes a number of excellent observations about the relationship between athletes and the media in a piece at the Guardian, and my favorite is this paragraph:

The modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest‑common‑denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting, in front of an array of strangers and backed by a piece of sponsored cardboard.

But neither the banality of the modern press conference nor the specific actions of tournament organizers should be the central feature of Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open.  Rather, it should be the absence of the best women’s tennis player from a major tournament.  She would rather not play tennis—the sport at which she’s the best in the world—than be subjected to the racism and sexism of the media and tournament organizers.  This should serve as a reminder about the extent to which Black and female athletes, like all other Black and female professionals, are subjected to racism and sexism simply by dint of being in the world.  Osaka’s withdrawal serves as a reminder about the mental health effects that such a subjection has. 

Clinton Yates’s article on Osaka for the Undefeated is also worth reading.


NFL Forced to End Race-Norming

A few months ago, I wrote about the NFL’s practice of race-norming in concussion settlements, a process that in effect presupposed that Black players have lower cognitive function than white players and thus made it harder for them to get benefits from the League’s concussion settlement.  That practice has now been ended as a result of a court-imposed mediator.


Adam Serwer on the Victory of Capitol Rioters

Adam Serwer has written another masterpiece in the Atlantic, this time provocatively titled “The Capitol Rioters Won.”  Serwer is, for my money, the most astute observer of American politics today.  His writing is also remarkably crisp—so crisp in fact that reading his essays quickly makes one liable to gloss over precise and important observations. 

The first of those here is that Republicans view Democratic political victory as illegitimate.  This is a point of view shared both by the Capitol rioters and by Republican elected officials.  Serwer ties this belief back (implicitly) to white supremacy.  The conspiracy over Obama’s birth was never about his actual place of birth, but instead a way to reinforce the notion that his status as Black and as the child of an immigrant makes him other. 

It is that same racism and xenophobia that drives the opprobrium visited upon the Squad (Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley).  And the same ideology drives Republicans to denounce Democratic victories as illegitimate: If Democratic voters aren’t true Americans (like white Republican voters are), then the idea that they even get to vote in the first place is up for debate. 

The logical end-point of this argument should elevate the importance of debates around voter suppression in various states (almost all of them) where Republicans have (sometimes successfully) proposed legislation to make it more difficult for Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote.  With the Voting Rights Act gutted and a Supreme Court that exhibits little ideological difference from elected Republicans, why would Democrats believe that current Republican efforts to make it harder to vote would be enough?  Republicans won’t be content until they have neutralized any possible route to power for Democrats. 

Here, we get to another key Serwer observation.  “The main ideological cleavage within the GOP is not whether election laws should be changed to better ensure Republican victory, but whether political violence is necessary to achieve that objective.” 

This observation buttresses the previous.  Republicans aren’t disagreeing about whether to enact laws that limit d/Democratic participation, but about what their recourse should be if those laws fail to be passed or fail to have the desired effect.  Michael Flynn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz may be pariahs among the mainstream media, but there are wide swaths of the Republican electorate that view them as the best of the Party, in much the same (though not morally equivalent) way many on the left admire the Squad. 

It is transparent at this point that the Republican Party is openly hostile to democracy.  But it bears repeating that this hostility is explicitly to multiracial democracy. 


Political Scientists Draft Statement of Concern

A group of political scientists who study democracy published a statement of concern about democratic backsliding in the US.  The statement both identifies the major threats to contemporary American democracy and proposes a solution. 

In addition to the attempts to restrict access to voting, the political scientists give particular attention to efforts by Republican legislature to overrule the outcome of the election. 

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes.

Their recommendation is a set of national standards for election administration.  Any statement that gets the signatures of a large group of academics is bound to be fairly anodyne (academics tend to pedantic by persuasion), but it bears reading to understand what a group of people expert in this field can all agree on.