When the U.S. Open begins on Monday, women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka will draw the world’s attention — both for how she’ll play and what she might say.
The tour’s third-ranked player wore COVID-19 masks at last year’s tournament that featured the names of Black victims of police violence, and she quit the French Open in May with an explanation on Instagram about her mental health struggles that has garnered more than 865,000 likes.
Osaka can count on support from one of the sport’s legends, Billie Jean King, who in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance praised outspoken young athletes like Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles. A prominent advocate for pay equity during her playing career, King said top athletes today can build an even bigger platform due to the emergence of social media.
“I love it,” said King, who recently published a memoir entitled “All In.” “This is a dream I’ve always had for every generation — that they will use this platform that we’ve been given, that it’s a privilege and to make sure you treat it like a privilege.”
“Because it is very few people who have this opportunity to be heard,” she added. “Like kids in sports today. Look at Naomi Osaka, you look at [Michael] Phelps, you look at Simone Biles, you look at all these different people who are speaking out, but people are actually listening to them.”
For athletes like Osaka, social media ‘makes a huge difference’
Biles made headlines last month when she withdrew from the all-around competition at the Olympics, citing her mental health. She has also spoken out about the sexual abuse she suffered under former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and criticized USA Gymnastics over its handling of Nassar.
Phelps, who won 23 gold medals as an Olympic swimmer, has spoken candidly about his struggle with depression, which he says included suicidal thoughts in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics. He spoke in support of Biles after her withdrawal from the all-around competition, saying issues of mental health “can’t be swept under the rug.”
King, who won 39 grand slam titles during her tennis career and led the fight for pay equity in the sport during the 1960s and ’70s, chairs the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative. The organization, which boasts a star-studded advisory board that features Venus and Serena Williams, aims to advance equal representation and pay in the workplace.
King credits social media for amplifying the voices of athletes like Osaka, Biles, and Phelps, who have a combined 13.2 million followers on Instagram.
“With social media, it makes a huge difference,” she said. “We only had traditional media.”
“I think young people should be very thankful to have the social media to get the word out. They’re all an author,” she added. “Now, they can say it but it goes fast. Sometimes it’s here and gone faster.”
Speaking to Yahoo Finance, King lauded, in particular, the mental health advocacy taken up by Osaka, Biles, and Phelps.
“I just hope kids find their authentic self, take good care of themselves, and it’s okay if you don’t feel good,” she said. “Ask for help.”
“Which I think Naomi and Simone and Phelps — and all these guys — were really helping,” she added. “I think it’s great.”