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ADVICE TO OSAKA, WESTBROOK: IGNORE THE TAUNTS OR MOVE ON
Mean as the insults can be, Big Sports has created a culture of hate by ramping up the fervor and embracing legal gambling, which prompts some athletes to melt down — while LeBron and Rodgers thrive
Hatred is a speed train to hell. It was enabled by this country’s founding fathers, who wrote the Constitution without a heads-up about social media, though Thomas Jefferson might have been ahead of his time with a TikTok account. Our freedom of speech, when violated at its most extreme, is a grotesque part of 21st-century life.
We’ve all dealt with jerks and psychos. I have in my personal life. I have in my media career, including a baseball manager who called me “a “f—ing fag.’’ Such is the maniacal culture of sports, created by revenue-obsessive leagues that drive fandom’s emotions with the 24/7 hype machines of their broadcast partners. Lately, the fervor has been compounded by the dangling of legal odds opioids in the faces of gamblers, many of whom are addicted and ruining ther lives. Of course, sports will attract its share of haters.
And if sports figures want to survive in this unhinged environment, much less thrive, they’d better accept abuse and heckling as an unpleasant part of the gig, an unfortunate byproduct of what they signed up for. Oh, the slurs and most vulgar language can and must be stopped in venues where airtight security is paramount. As for athletes foolish enough to dive headfirst into Twitter and other digital vices, they deserve the inherent harassment.
But if Naomi Osaka ever is to reach her vast tennis potential, as one of the all-time greats, she can’t fold mentally and openly cry because a woman in the stands shouts, “Naomi, you suck.’’ She can’t effectively stop trying, especially when a supportive crowd tried to bolster her with shouts of “We love you, Naomi!’’ and “You can do it!’’ It’s disgraceful that this troubled fan was allowed in the main stadium Saturday at Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and, of course, she represented the micro-percent lunatic fringe that would express such a thing — possibly because she had money bet on the match, with tennis a popular sportsbook darling. But unless clinical psychologists are positioned at gates beside the X-ray machines and mask checkers, how are organizers supposed to determine which ticket-holders might insult Osaka, or which taunters in the audience will chant “Westbrick! Westbrick!’’ when Russell Westbrook clanks another jumpshot in Crypto.com Arena, home of the dark comedy known as the Los Angeles Lakers?
These are slights, undeniably, but they don’t rise to a level of slander that should disrupt an elite athlete’s mission and, in Osaka’s case, swallow her entire psyche. The BNP Paribis Open was supposed to be the showcase of her renaissance, the beginning of her relaunch to prominence after abruptly quitting the sport last year at the French Open, where she rebelled against answering basic questions at press conferences. Dealing with media and fans are standard responsibilities for elite athletes, one reason they’re paid massive amounts, such as Osaka’s $55 milllion from endorsements alone in 2021. Those sponsors need her to challenge for Grand Slam titles again, but her oversensitive response to one heckler suggests she’ll never be happy on a court again and is doomed to waste her vast talent.
She wasn’t prepared to play her second-round match, evident when her serve was broken in the first game by Veronika Kudermetova. That’s when Osaka heard the catcall. Rather than ignore it and move on with play, she cracked, asking the chair umpire to stop the match and eject the fan before requesting a microphone to speak to the crowd. Her plea was over the top and rude to her opponent, and Osaka was advised to continue playing. She brooded the rest of the night and lost 6-0, 6-4. Finally, she was permitted to address the audience following the match after Kudermetova — a Russian who had every wartime reason to be intense in a U.S. stadium — maintained her poise throughout the woe-is-Naomi sideshow.
Wrongly, Osaka tried to compare the gibe of one person to the torrent of boos aimed at the Williams sisters and their father, Richard, at Indian Wells in 2001. The fans thought Richard, now the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie, was playing hanky-panky with the brackets and had Venus feign an injury so she wouldn’t have to face sister Serena in the semifinals. Serena was booed mercilessly as she won her final two matches and took the title. The racism in the desert air was thick then, leading Serena and Venus to boycott the tournament until the mid-2010s.
Did the potshot at Osaka, who grew up in the U.S. but carries citizenship in Japan and identifies as Japanese in competition, constitute anti-Asian abuse in her view? Her tears rushed immediately, but cruel as the comment was, it didn’t go beyond “Naomi, you suck.’’ She will hear much worse in the future, especially after melting down so quickly and revealing how easily she can crumble. It was, sadly, another example of her competitive demise when a ticking clock is urging her to prove her mettle and grow thicker skin.
Her voice breaking, she told the fans, “To be honest, I've gotten heckled before, it didn't really bother me. But, like, heckled here? I watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you've never watched it, you should watch it. And I don't know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot. I'm trying not to cry." She thanked the people and left through the tunnel, her No. 78 ranking sure to drop only 14 months after winning her fourth Slam at the Australian Open.
Consider it a gut check for athletes everywhere. Rivals extend beyond opponents on the courts, fields, pitches, rinks and courses. They’re also in the stands, on Twitter, in the media, everywhere. Those who shake off the jeers are, by no coincidence, the MVPs and champions. LeBron James didn’t let a razzer in his home arena get in his head, preferring to stop and say on the baseline, “What do you know about basketball other than the ball going in or not? Shut yo ass up.’’ Then he won the favor of Lakers’ fans, amid one of the franchise’s ugliest seasons, with performances of 56 and 50 points. He turned the boos to “MVP! MVP!’’ chants, albeit temporarily.
“Listen, the Laker faithful knows when bad basketball is being played and they know when good basketball is being played. They have the right to have any response they want," James said after another too-tense victory over lowly Washington. "They've seen so many great teams and so many great individuals. ... So for me, being a part of this franchise, I feel like I just try to give them an opportunity to have memorable nights as well.
“Try to give them something to cheer for, give them something to feel good about on a nightly basis, and I know it hasn't been as great as they’d like for it to be this year, but you take the small wins when they come."
His response was powerful and redemptive when juxtaposed against the continuing breakdowns of Westbrook, the bane of the Lakers’ existence. Tired of being blamed for a disastrous season, in what was supposed to be a triumphant return to his home region, Westbrook finally lashed out at fans and media for their “Westbrick!’’ taunts. In the past, he has dealt with verbal racial assaults and had popcorn dumped on his head, behavior that cannot be tolerated. But verbal ridicule, when he’s making $44.2 million this season and is due $47 million next season, is a pox he must manage. Unfortunate as it is when criticism impacts his family, such as when his wife lashed out at Fox Sports commentator Skip Bayless on Twitter, there hasn’t been much sympathy among the sports masses. They just want him to make more shots and stop committing turnovers.
“I, 100 percent, stand behind my wife and how she’s feeling,” Westbrook said. “It’s not just about this year. Right now, she’s reached a point and my family has reached a point where it’s really weighing on them. And it’s very unfortunate, just for me personally, because this is just a game. This is just a game. This is not end all, be all. When it comes to basketball, I don’t mind the criticism of missing and making shots. But the moment it becomes where my name is getting shamed, it becomes an issue. I’ve kind of let it go in the past because it never really bothered me. But, it really kind of hit me the other day.”
That’s when Westbrook and his wife, Nina, attended a parent-teacher conference for their 4-year-old son. “The teacher told me, ‘Noah, he’s so proud of his last name. He writes it everywhere. He writes it on everything. He tells everybody and walks around and says, ‘I’m Westbrook.’ … And I kind of sat there in shock and it hit me like, ‘Damn. I can no longer allow people’ … ‘Westbrick’ for example, to me, is now shaming. It’s shaming my name, my legacy for my kids.
“I haven’t done anything to anybody. I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t done anything but play basketball a way that people might not like. And this is just a game. Just a game. This is not my entire life. I think that’s the ultimate thing that’s been for me. I don’t like to harp on it or want it out there. But once it starts to affect my family, my wife. Even today, my mom said something about it today. It affects them even going to games. Like, I don’t even want to bring my kids to the game because I don’t want them to hear people calling their dad nicknames and other names for no reason because he’s playing the game that he loves. And it’s gotten so bad where my family don’t even want to go to home games, to any game.”
Then came the boomerang effect. When Nina Westbrook tweeted about “death wishes for me and my family sent my way,’’ she referenced Bayless, a 70-year-old man-child who routinely uses the “Westbrick’’ label. This prompted TNT’s Charles Barkley to reiterate his hatred for Bayless, which has included a wish to kill him. Bayless, seeing a chance for rare promotion for his low-rated program, said, “I challenge Charles again to join me on this platform. We can have a whole hour to go back and forth so I can better understand why he wants to kill me. And who knows? Maybe I can convince him I'm not worth killing."
Next, Bayless concluded Barkley “is just jealous of me. He watches me, most days if not every day, on TV. And the things I say piss him off because he wishes he had thought of that and that he could say that on TV. That's my two cents psychoanalyzing Charles Barkley, who I have never met. But, just deep down, I have this feeling that Charles is afraid to ever try to get to know me because he's afraid he just might like me."
Finally, inevitably, Skip pulled a Westbrook: He said his wife, Ernestine, thinks Barkley is a “sick individual’’ and is worried some nutjob will follow his advice and kill Bayless.
All of which only feeds the monster that growls at Osaka, Westbrook and anyone else who can’t take the heat. Maybe they should find another way to make a living, or study those who channel hatred into greatness. Take Aaron Rodgers. He made enemies throughout the world with his anti-vax stance. An official voter, Hub Arkush, said he wouldn’t select Rodgers as MVP because he’s a “bad guy’’ and “the biggest jerk in the league.’’ Rodgers fired back by saying of Arkush, “I think he’s an absolute bum,’’ then teaching a master class in December quarterbacking that convinced 39 of 50 voters to award him the trophy in a landslide. Arkush, who voted for Cooper Kupp, apologized for “some of the childish things’’ he said about Rodgers. I don’t have to like Rodgers to acknowledge how he overcame a torrent of abuse.
That is how you respond to critics, Naomi Osaka.
That is how you respond to critics, Russell Westbrook.
That is how you respond to critics, athletes everywhere.
By not letting them impact your mission, they go away. Then, you win.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.