The Humanity of Naomi Osaka, Michael Beasley And Other Black Athletes Versus The Inhumanity Of Their 'Fans'

The famed tennis star and the former NBA basketball player both opened up about their mental health struggles and the damaging effect that criticism had on their psyche.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with teammate Michael Beasley in the second half of an NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Jan. 11, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with teammate Michael Beasley in the second half of an NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Jan. 11, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Gene Sweeney Jr. via Getty Images

Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid — afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. — James Baldwin

Where does a giant go when he doesn’t want to be seen?

For six-foot-ten-inch former NBA player Michael Beasley, he stays in his house. With his thoughts. The ones that haunt him. The little thoughts he should be past, teaming up with larger ones that he can’t shake. Inside him, they create a dormant volcano, because that’s what trauma does to many of us who have survived the neighborhood and all of the temptations that come with it; we still walk around with the bubbling hot lava of trauma just waiting to erupt.

“The only people that haven’t stolen from me are my kids,” he says in an interview on “The Pivot Podcast,” hosted by Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder, and Fred Taylor — all former NFL players.

No one told him how to handle the volcano inside him. No one showed him that it could be contained and, eventually, with therapy, extinguished.

And Beasley is hot. Not with anger, but with sadness. Same thing, really.

Beasley’s heard everything that fans and critics have had to say about him. All of it has landed in space that even Beasley doesn’t know. So he hides. Maybe from us, maybe for us. But either way, he’s isolating himself so that he doesn’t have to be the butt of jokes that aren’t funny or relive all of the ways people believe he ruined his life. I’m not listing all of the run-ins Beasley’s had with authority figures, you can read that here, but I will ask this: What is a reasonable expectation of maturity when no one has taught you how to be mature?

So, Beasley, 31, stays home. Like a child on punishment. But the other men in the room, all Black men, recognize the isolation. They are concerned that this might be the warning signs of something else.

“You’ve have kids, I have kids. Come to my house,” Crowder said on the podcast. “We can get bounce houses for the kids, and we can drink a couple beers and hang out.”

Crowder paused and then added: “That’s not a normal successful man’s life; to sit up in the house like that.”

But this is what happens to Black athletes in an environment where fans feel entitled to them and spectators are cruel. They say “have a thicker skin,” that the millions they make should be the salve on their wounds, reducing Black athletes to silent giants, denied their humanity, who have to prove their toughness by how well they can take abuse. And that’s what it is — abuse. That’s why the efforts of those like tennis player Naomi Osaka and superstar gymnast Simone Biles to bring awareness to athletes’ mental health are so important. It’s why the hosts of “Pivot” offered to be a friend to Beasley and encouraged him to get out of the house. It’s why we all need to take mental health in the workplace seriously.

According to Mental Health America, Black people make up 13.4% of the United States. Of that, some 16% have reported having a mental illness. And while that number might seem small, that is over 7 million people, or more than the combined population of Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia.

The more important study, though, might be the one that found that 63% of ”Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness. As a result, people may experience shame about having a mental illness and worry that they may be discriminated against due to their condition.”

The stigma surrounding therapy and the widely held belief among many Black people that churches or other places of worship are the only acceptable forms of mental health treatment, coupled with widely held assumptions about Black athletes, could’ve led to those unceremonious moments in sports where the heckling fan and the sports player collide.

Take the Malice in the Palace, the infamous brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers and unruly fans on Nov. 19, 2004 — and before you make that face, remember that we’ve learned that Pistons center Ben Wallace’s mom had just died, and the Pacers’ Ron Artest, who would later change his name to Metta World Peace, has been vocal about his struggles with mental health. And don’t forget that the brawl between players and fans happened after a drink was thrown on Artest as he lay on the scorer’s table. What ensued was an all-out fracas. It was a black eye on the sport, but what was more telling after the fact was the players believing that they were going to die that night thanks to a lack of police presence and an out-of-control Detroit crowd, only to be suspended and called “thugs.”

No one mentions that Pacers center Jermaine O’Neal got his suspension overturned because he took the NBA to court and a federal judge found that he had a right to protect himself. Truthfully, Artest and Wallace probably shouldn’t have been on the court that night. Wallace was emotionally raw from the loss of his mother and Artest had struggled with his mental health for years and was merely labeled a hothead.

This is the struggle of mental health for Black athletes who survived the ghetto when money isn’t enough. This is the struggle for Black athletes who can be both revered and despised in a country that doesn’t love them back. This will always be the struggle for Black athletes who have to work out a Rubik’s cube-like contraption inside themselves to make sense of all the ways they will be treated and how they should present and behave.

Just imagine all the levels of WTF that recently took place inside Serena and Venus Williams’ heads as they listened to director Jane Campion drag them during the Critics’ Choice Awards.

“Serena and Venus, you are such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to,” Campion said.

Just watch Venus’ face — it says it all.

It’s this level of internalized contortionism that becomes exhausting for most Black athletes.

In 2021, Naomi Osaka was one of the top tennis players in the world when she left the game to take care of her mental health. She literally quit the French Open and took care of herself. At the time, everyone seemed supportive. That was until Saturday when a heckler yelled, “Naomi you suck!” during a silent moment in her match against Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova. A visibly shaken Osaka went on to lose the match 6-0, 6-4. After the game, Osaka addressed the crowd.

“Hi,” Osaka said. “I just wanted to say thank you. I feel like I cried enough on camera. To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before and it didn’t really bother me. But heckled here. ... I’ve watched a video of Serena and Venus getting heckled here and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch.”

She continued: “I don’t know why but it went into my head and got replayed a lot. I’m trying not to cry but, I just wanted to say thank you and congratulations [Veronika]. Thank you.”

Osaka wasn’t trying to overshadow Kudermetova’s victory; she was telling the heckler that if you wanted to hurt me, you did. And that’s the part that hurt the worst. Osaka is performing under intense scrutiny during a vulnerable time, and in a professional sport where the biblical ethos is to “suck it up.” I couldn’t imagine the difficulty that Osaka faces being a Black woman in pro tennis, in a country that doesn’t care about Black women.

But I do know that it’s time for spectators to spectate. It’s also time for those athletes who believe that heckling is a part of the game to work to change it. It’s time that paid attendees realize that just because athletes are performing in front of you doesn’t mean that you own them. And you might want to take into account all that they may be going through, I mean just because they are giants doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings too.