Naomi Osaka discovered what it’s like to be at the sharp end of a sporting governing body’s regulations this summer.
The four-time grand slam singles champion declined to attend press conferences as she began her French Open campaign in June – citing the importance of protecting her mental health and addressing the toll that media interviews had previously taken on her.
The French Open organizers responded by fining the world No. 2 an amount of $15,000 and threatening to expel her from future grand slams, after they deemed her withdrawal from press conferences as a failure on her part to meet “contractual media obligations.”
Osaka made the decision to withdraw from Roland Garros altogether, then skipped Wimbledon, before returning to play at the Tokyo Olympics.
What’s happened to Osaka over the last few months has left many critical of her sport’s handling of the situation, and wishing those who govern her sport had adopted a more empathetic and sensitive approach given she was dealing with mental health issues.
In fact, just after Osaka said she would be opting out of speaking to the press at the tournament, the French Open official Twitter account posted a since-deleted tweet that included photos of four other players engaging in media duties – Coco Gauff, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sablenka and Rafael Nadal – which carried the caption: “They understood the assignment.”
The tweet appeared to be directed at Osaka and her decision to withdraw from media obligations. It was considered by several former tennis players and pundits as insensitive, and former doubles champion Rennae Stubbs said that the post could make Osaka “feel guilty” and described it as “humiliating” for her.
And while the rule itself – in which players are required to engage in press conferences throughout the tournament – may not be a racist or misogynistic one, the context in which Osaka found herself punished and seemingly mocked by officials is part of a pattern in which Black women in elite sports are subject to harsh scrutiny.
The rigidity with which Roland Garros responded to Osaka’s decision is reminiscent of the scrutiny that tennis governing bodies have previously bestowed upon other prominent players, including Serena Williams.
Osaka is a young, Black and Japanese athlete whose decision at the French Open is considered outside of the box by many. Her refusal to play by the traditional rules has seen her face backlash across the board in a particular right-wing media landscape that doesn’t look too fondly on Black women that diverge from the expected path.
And tennis has a history in the way it has dealt with Black women who do things differently.
In 2018, when Serena Williams wore a black catsuit at the French Open – designed, she said, to help prevent the recurring blood clots she developed after a difficult childbirth, and which she dedicated to other mothers that had undergone complicated pregnancies – the French Tennis Federation deemed the outfit unacceptable.
At the time, the organization’s then-president Bernard Giudicelli said that a tennis player must “respect the game and the place” and said Williams’ catsuit wouldn’t be accepted at the grand slam.
Williams found herself accused of displaying “disrespect” towards the game despite putting her physical health first, much like Osaka prioritized her mental health this year. In both cases, there was a feeling among many that Black women athletes were having their legitimate personal choices policed with insensitivity by governing bodies.
The incident in which Williams was told she couldn’t wear the catsuit again was not the first time the tennis star had experienced elevated scrutiny for her appearance and attire. Throughout her career, Williams has faced criticisms of her physicality in ways that White, male tennis players never have.
She has been referred to as a man and has been described as “too muscular,” and she and her sister Venus have been called the “Williams brothers” – by the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, a top member of a ruling body in tennis. Her body has been mocked by journalists and fellow tennis players.
After Williams’ defeat to Osaka in the 2018 US Open final, in which there was an altercation between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos, she was portrayed by Mark Knight in a cartoon in a way that was widely regarded as a racist stereotype – a case in which a White artist depicted Williams as angry and ill-mannered, a trope which has been used to cast Black women in a degrading and mocking light for many years.
The events of the 2018 French Open served as yet another occasion at which Williams was subject to heavy criticism for her appearance in a history of intense scrutiny levelled at a successful Black sports woman.
CNN reached out to the French Tennis Federation over its treatment of both Osaka and Williams but didn’t receive a response.
‘It’s almost comical how blatant it is’
Olympian Gwen Berry is a track and field star for whom equal treatment for women, especially Black women, in sport matters greatly.
She says that “without a doubt” there is systemic racism and bias within professional sport.
“It’s almost comical how blatant it is,” Berry told CNN Sport. “When Serena, Naomi or another athlete who happens to be a Black woman, does anything that veers away from what’s ‘expected’ in the top sports, they’re punished.”
Berry is no stranger to the penalization and marginalization brought down on Black women athletes who decide to do things on their own terms.
At the US Olympic trials this year, she turned away from the flag and held up a T-shirt that carried the words ‘activist athlete’ as the National Anthem played while she was on the podium after Berry says she was told it would play before the medal ceremony, not during, – something which made her feel as if she had been “set up” by USA Track and Field.
Immediately afterwards, she was met with fury from critics including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, the former of whom accused her of hating America.
In 2019, Berry lost some of her sponsorships after raising her fist in protest on the podium while the National Anthem played at the Pan American Games in Peru.
She received a 12-month probation from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee for the act, which she says was meant to highlight social injustice in America. The committee called the gesture a breach of their code of conduct.
Berry finds the punishment and marginalization that she’s faced for protesting inequality in the US to be the product of both racism, misogyny and elitism in what she sees as an environment that doesn’t want Black women athletes to speak out.
“It feels like, when you’re an athlete and you’re standing up for racial equality and for women’s rights that the people at the top don’t want you to do anything other than perform for them,” Berry said. “It’s like they’re saying to us: ‘You’re on this stage, so you have to do what we ask and it doesn’t matter what you want to say.”
Berry says that, as a successful Black woman in an elite sport, she feels that she is often expected to just “remain silent when it comes to oppression.”
“It’s as if they [the ruling bodies of track and field] just assume that I shouldn’t say anything they consider ‘over the line’,” Berry told CNN Sport.
“If you say anything that addresses the reality of racial inequality in this country and in this sport, you’re pulled back because it doesn’t fit in with how you’re expected to perform.”
‘They don’t want the field to be too far apart’
Back in May, Simone Biles – the most decorated American gymnast in history – received what her coach, sports journalists such as Juliet Macur and other commentators deemed an underscore from the US Classic judges after she pulled off a Yurchenko double pike vault.
Until that night, the move had never before been performed by a woman in competition.
While wearing a leotard complete with an image of a rhinestone goat emblazoned on the back – in reference to the perception that she is the GOAT, or greatest of all time, in her field – Biles achieved something unprecedented for women in gymnastics, and was rewarded for her efforts with a score of 6.6.
That’s just slightly above the scores usually given for completing significantly less challenging vaults. After receiving a score that falls within the range of points she’d been given before for far less difficult moves, Biles said to ESPN: “That’s on the [International Federation of Gymnastics], that’s not on me.
“They have an open-end code of points, and now they’re mad people are too far ahead and excelling.”
Biles has set the bar for what modern gymnasts are capable of. She has performed routines so complex and inventive that she has four moves named after her. She is widely considered the best female gymnast in the world.
So, it is understandable that she considers the 6.6 for pulling off a groundbreaking move an underscore – and that she feels this is motivated by a desire to ensure that she doesn’t excel too far ahead.
Usually when an athlete claims a historic achievement, they can expect to be celebrated by their field’s ruling body. In this case, that didn’t happen for the five-time World all-around champion.
The International Federation of Gymnastics did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. They did not issue a statement elsewhere in response to Biles’ comments on the US Classic score.
The fight for respect and recognition
South African runner Caster Semenya is another Black woman athlete who knows what it’s like to feel targeted by a governing body.
In 2018, World Athletics announced new rules that meant double Olympic champion Semenya would be forced to reduce her natural levels of testosterone if she wanted to compete in her events in the future after the organization declared her natural abilities an unfair advantage over other women.
This is despite the fact that such abilities come from a genetic condition that Semenya was born with.
Since then, the South African runner has been embroiled in legal challenges and, in February, she filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.
During the years in which Semenya has pursued her challenge to World Athletics’ rule changes, she has been unable to compete in many major competitions.
And Semenya isn’t the only Black woman to be severely affected by the World Athletics rule changes on testosterone levels, as the Ugandan middle-distance runner Annet Negesa, who has hyperandrogenism like Semenya, also found herself fiercely scrutinized for her condition.
Kenyan athlete Maximila Imali, too, has been fighting for acceptance from the elite athletics world since 2014 – all due to the differences in sex development that are part of the way she was born.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report on the sex testing of elite women athletes noted that “women from the Global South have been disproportionately affected” by these rules and pointed out that “there have never been analogous regulations for men.”
In a statement issued to CNN, World Athletics said: “Black female athletes are not marginalised in athletics, they are in the mainstream.
“There is copious evidence that Black women are thriving and being celebrated in track and field, that it is in fact the most accessible sport for Black women.”
In reference to Semenya’s case, World Athletics stated: “Our female eligibility regulations do not target any single athlete or race, they apply to athletes with specific Differences of Sexual Development who can take advantage of male levels of testosterone unavailable to other female athletes.
“These regulations were tested in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and found to be “a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of attaining a legitimate objective” of ensuring fair competition in female athletics.”
The case of Semenya, then, falls into the same category as the cases of Osaka, Williams, and Berry, in which Black women at the top level of sports find themselves almost constantly policed – for their actions, their bodies, hair and outfits.
“The thing is many of these sports, like tennis and golf and track and field, were traditionally dominated by white men and they were established by them,” Berry said.
“So, the last thing that’s expected at the top is for Black women to even play a role in them – let alone to go on to excel in their fields.”
Berry’s point is most famously illustrated by the success of Serena. The 23-time grand slam champion is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time – in a sport that is still traditionally associated with country clubs.
Tennis is a sport with a history of being played in royal courts by wealthy, White monarchs such as Henry VIII of England and of trickling into the habits of the middle and upper classes. It has been heavily associated with White middle-class sportsmen for many years.
When both of the Williams’ sisters were playing in tournaments as children, their father has said he overheard White parents talk about the girls in derogatory ways. Now, the younger Williams’ sibling is the face of world tennis and is considered one of the finest American athletes ever.
‘Old Boys’ clubs’
Semenya’s absence at this year’s Olympics is difficult not to notice: one of the world’s most accomplished athletes is not present at the most coveted competition of them all – it is a glaring absence.
Greg Nott is the director of Norton Rose Fulbright, the law firm that has been representing Caster in her challenge to World Athletics.
Nott has known and worked closely with Semenya for many years and believes that the World Athletics rules are not only “rooted in racism and misogyny,” but that they also “go against the entire ethos of athletics and world sport.”
Nott describes the governing bodies at the top of elite sports as “Old Boys’ clubs.”
“The make-up of these boards does not reflect the diversity of the athletes they’re ruling over,” Nott told CNN Sport.
“You’ve got people who all think the same sitting at the same table who aren’t questioning one another or challenging each other to consider anything outside of their own traditional school of thought.
“There has to be diversity in gender and race within these ruling bodies. They should be the leaders and the vanguard in sport – they should be leading the way to encourage greater diversity in athletics.
“They should be shaping an environment in which every athlete feels comfortable to be there, regardless of their race or gender or any other differences.”
Nott thinks that World Athletics’ ruling against Semenya undermines the very nature of the sport.
“The entire idea behind athletics and competitions such as the Olympics and so on is that they celebrate the natural abilities of individuals,” Nott said.
“So, what’s happening to Caster – whose natural advantage is being called into question – actually goes against everything that athletics is supposed to stand for.
“She is being scrutinized for abilities that she did not gain through the use of any performance enhancers.
“To say that she should have to change herself in order to compete in what she wants to do is totally at odds with what athletics and world sport are supposed to be about.”
HRW, too, are of the belief that the rules that have for so long hindered Semenya, Negesa, Imali and more are diametrically opposed to the Olympics and similar celebrations of athletic achievement.
In their aforementioned report on sex testing, the organization says:
“Instituting and enforcing policies that are inherently discriminatory — such as sex testing regulations — flies in the face of the Olympic movement’s commitments to dignity and equality for all.
“Regulating fair play is a valid undertaking for sport authorities; committing human rights violations in the process is not.”
“No one should have to change themselves to be a sporting professional.”
According to Nott, Semenya’s experience and treatment indicates an expectation within athletics as to what a woman should look like – an expectation that is laid out by the executives who reside in the seat of power in track and field.
“She faces this indignity in which her body is essentially paraded around the world because she is different,” Nott added.
“Just recently, she stood up in front of a group of people she was speaking to and said ‘I know I have a deep voice and I know my body looks like this – but I’m Caster. And I’m a woman.’
“And that is so powerful for her to make it clear that, regardless of whatever these ruling bodies believe a woman should look like, she knows that she’s a woman and that her ordeal is rooted in discrimination.”
Nott pointed out that World Athletics and other governing bodies in sport are aware that they hold most of the power when it comes to situations such as these – and he described their actions as “gatekeeping.”
“These ruling bodies regulate themselves,” Nott said.
The World Athletics Executive Board is made up of eight individuals. Of those eight, only two are women. Neither is Black. As Nott points out, the board itself does not reflect the diversity of the athletes it is supposed to represent.
“They know the power they wield – they know they don’t necessarily have to take things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into account because they’re private organizations.
“So, they don’t really have to answer to anyone who might question how their rules impact marginalized athletes.”
He said that because these bodies are essentially free to govern as they wish, they aren’t always held to account when their decisions can leave Black women athletes feeling sidelined.
In Berry’s opinion, too, what has happened to Semenya is reflective of both the higher standards that Black women athletes are held to and the restrictive parameters of how a woman should appear.
“It feels as though they’re saying this is what a woman looks like and if you don’t look like this, then you’re not a woman and you’re something else,” Berry said.
Change comes from the top
Some athletes, in response to racism and sexism they’ve encountered, have established and joined organizations dedicated to making sure their voices and experiences are heard.
Imani Dorsey is an NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League] player and a board member of the Black Women’s Player Collective [BWPC] – a grassroots movement that strives to elevate the presence and representation of Black women soccer players.
She has played a pivotal role in the progression of the BWPC to date and is deeply passionate about increasing the visibility of and opportunities for Black women in soccer.
“It’s crazy because soccer is the world sport, right? Anyone can play,” Dorsey said to CNN Sport.
“But for some reason, in the US, it takes a lot of money to reach the top – and the vast majority of people in this country with money are White people.”
The Board of Directors of US Soccer oversees the governing of the NWSL and Major League Soccer (MLS). At the present moment, there are no Black women on its board.
While there is a higher proportion of women in the US Soccer Board of Directors than there is in the World Athletics or the International Tennis Federation boards, there is still little representation of Black women athletes at the top level of soccer, too.
Dorsey, like Berry, thinks that when elite sports were initially established, the “people at the top weren’t really thinking about anyone else.”
Indeed, association soccer was founded in the 19th century in England and, when the Football Association (FA) Cup was born in 1863, it was dominated by White men both on the pitch and on the governing side.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s – when Clyde Best and Albert Johanneson played for the English clubs West Ham and Leeds United respectively and Laurie Cunningham joined Leyton Orient – that Black professional players in association soccer’s country of origin were truly recognized.
The Women’s FA wasn’t founded until 1969 and, up until this point, women had been banned from playing soccer on FA grounds for more than 40 years. Only in 2002 did Mary Phillip, a Black woman, captain the England women’s national soccer team – nearly a century and a half after the sport was established.
Clearly, soccer has not always been a welcoming place for anyone that isn’t White and male.
Dorsey also believes that change will only come when Black women athletes are in the room where decisions are made.
“When you’re a minority, no one is really asking you what your experiences feel like,” she said.
“So, in the BWPC, it’s really about what we can do to amplify our voice and to provide our perspective because what we’ve realized certainly in the last year is that it has been sorely missing in a lot of decision-making entities.”
Dorsey also thinks that centering Black women’s voices in conversations held within sports’ ruling bodies aligns with the entire culture of women’s soccer – which she says is focused on “leaving the sport a better place for the next generation of women and girls.”
To Dorsey, the inclusion of Black women athletes in sports’ biggest boardrooms and governing bodies will play a key role in bringing about an end to the marginalization they face in the present moment.
Then, perhaps a new generation may not have to face the same scrutiny and sidelining that Williams, Berry, Osaka and Biles have all experienced at one point or another.