A Lesson in Leadership From the U.S. Open: raceAhead

September 3, 2019, 6:00 PM UTC

In a historic match-up for the ages, defending champion Naomi Osaka bested up-and-coming star Coco Gauff on Saturday, winning the last eight games in a 6-3, 6-0 third-round victory, and ending the talented teen’s nearmagical run. 

But what happened next was both a balm for a troubled time and a profound leadership lesson.

Osaka asked the tearful Gauff to break protocol and stay on the court to join the post-match interview. Gauff demurred at first. “I said no because I knew I was going to cry the whole time,” she told ESPN, crying the whole time. She said was going to learn a lot from the match and Osaka was amazing. “It’s been amazing… and she’s been so sweet to me so thank you for this.”

When it was Osaka’s turn to speak, she politely waved off a question and instead turned to the stands toward Gauff’s parents. She spoke to them as if they were standing beside her. “You guys raised an amazing player,” she said, fighting back tears of her own. “I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, like the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can… I think it’s incredible. And I think you guys are amazing, and I think Coco, you’re amazing.”

The crowd thought it was amazing, too. And it was. 

If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor.

But despite the emotion on display, it was also amazing for another reason. Tennis, like many “gentleman’s sports,” has long been an elite white boys club, so it’s not surprising that bright lights from another demographic would run into each other. But Osaka not only revealed the deep kinship often felt by diversity trailblazers in any majority-culture professional environment, she reframed what victory can mean in a zero-sum, winner-take-all world. 

But it’s worth noting that despite all sorts of “diversity efforts” in education and sports, these beautiful moments may continue to be outliers. There is, in fact, a pipeline issue to worry about.

Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic explains how kids participating in high school sports declined in 2018 for the first time in 30 years, a trend which promises to continue. But as some kids optout for health and safety reasons, plenty of others are pushed out for complex cultural and financial ones.  

“The deeper story is that the weed of American-style meritocracy is strangling the roots of youth sports. As parents have recognized that athletic success can burnish college applications, sports have come to resemble just another pre-professional program, with rising costs, hyper-specialization, and massive opportunity-hoarding among the privileged.”

It’s going to take a concerted effort, and yes, a collective reframing of what victory means in a zero-sum, winner-take-all world, to make sure that sport remains safe and accessible to all. 

But until then, we have Serena (and Venus) and Naomi and Coco, who are using their enormous talent and popularity to continually take us all to inclusion school.

Proof that victory is fleeting, Osaka lost to Belinda Bencic yesterday, in a 7-5, 6-4 fourth-round win for the Swiss challenger.

But Osaka has already left a lasting mark. Last year, Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian-American father and Japanese mother, became the first Japanese-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam championship. It was an occasion that helped confirm, at least in some quarters, the slow-moving dismantling of conservative Japanese ideas about identity and cultural purity. 

And also last year, as Osaka wept under the weight of a disapproving crowd after a controversial match against her own bright light, Serena Williams, it was Williams who similarly comforted her and encouraged the crowd to embrace Osaka’s excellence, and in this case, her win. 

“She played well, and this is her first Grand Slam,” Williams said through tears of her own. “And I know you guys were here rooting and I was rooting too, but let’s make this the best moment that we can.”


On Point

Disaster recovery efforts often worse in poor, immigrant, and communities of color Consider this summary a preview of the raceAhead columns that will become necessary after Hurricane Dorian’s winds dissipate. For one thing, black and Latinx people disproportionately live in areas likely to be impacted by storms and floods. Yet, where white communities tend to gain wealth after a natural disaster because of reinvestments in infrastructure, communities of color tend to lose wealth. And, according to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, low-income people often don’t ever re-stabilize. "Disasters ultimately topple struggling families from their precarious state, often leaving them stuck in mold-infested, uninhabitable housing and pushing them in a deeper financial hole than ever before." The Shriver Brief

Wedding venue refuses mixed-race couple because of 'our Christian belief' The Boone’s Camp Event Hall in Boonesville, Miss. may be a lovely place, but now two separate affianced couples have allegedly been turned away, one because they were same-sex, the other because the groom is black and the bride is white. "First of all, we don’t do gay weddings or mixed race, because of our Christian race—I mean, our Christian belief," says a woman associated with the facility in a video shot by the sister of the groom. Although the Mississippi Legislature passed a "religious freedom" law allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT people in 2016, that bill doesn’t extend to race, notes Deep South Voice. Deep South Voice

Congressional investigation finds 'extreme irregularities' in black voting districts in Georgia The House Oversight and Reform Committee is investigating why there was an unusually large drop-off in votes in the state’s 2018 lieutenant governor race, along with complaints of voter suppression across the state. The probe shows a decline in votes on electronic voting machines in 101 out of 159 Georgia counties, even when paper ballots did not reflect any disparity. "I’ve never seen a drop-off pattern like this, ever," says one expert. Another report from The Coalition for Good Governance, a nonpartisan election security group, finds similar issues. "The rates of touchscreen machine–reported undervotes in such precincts in the Lt. Governor contest are far greater than the undervote rates in non–African American neighborhoods regardless of whether those neighborhoods lean Democratic or Republican," the report said. Salon

The Harvard student turned away by immigration officials has made it back in time for the first day of classes Harvard freshman Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23 was detained for eight hours by immigration authorities at Boston Logan International Airport on August 23; his laptop and phone were searched, he was interrogated, then his visa was abruptly denied and he was forced to return to his native Lebanon. While the reason for the decision was never made clear, Ajjawi’s plight triggered an immediate outcry. Harvard, working along with an international education organization called AMIDEAST, were able to get federal officials to reverse the decision. The Harvard Crimson

On Background

Decolonizing is harder than it sounds: A dispatch from Yale The current proof is this guest op-ed written by law professor John Fabian Witt in defense of his work as chair of the committee tasked to create a process to rename Yale’s Calhoun College. John Calhoun, for whom the college is named, was a South Carolina politician, the seventh vice president, and a staunch supporter of slavery. The piece is in response to a new book written by Anthony Kronman, a former dean of Yale Law School, who takes issue with diversity initiatives on college campuses in general and takes specific aim at the Calhoun decision. The value of this post is many, but two stand out. First, Witt details the careful way the committee dug deep into history — of Calhoun, of the College's founding, and ultimately, the mission of the university itself. It’s a blueprint for any organization facing a similar issue. But he is clearly injured by the attack from a former colleague and friend. The other big takeaway? Inclusion work is hard. Yale Daily News

What it’s like to feel different Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor knows. Although she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a girl, she’s never quite gotten used to the nasty comments from people who believed she was a drug addict when she injects herself with insulin. Those experiences, plus just her general empathetic awesomeness, inspired her to write a children's book called, Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You. It's a book about 12 people planting a garden, each of whom live with certain conditions, like asthma or Tourette’s syndrome. There are even two kids with autism, but they present very differently. "I want every child to understand that whatever condition they bear in life, they are special in a good way," she tells NPR. The book is vividly illustrated by Rafael López. NPR

Can Korean wrestling thrive in the U.S.? This is the poignant question behind Kim Sang Hyun’s now 30-year quest to bring a 1,700-year-old form of wrestling called ssireum to the U.S. It requires skill, strength, and strategy, and there is no kicking or hitting or sumo-style shoving. "It’s a very gentlemanly sport," Kim tells the New York Times. It’s also welcoming: Women’s teams are now common and even toddlers participate in Korea. But Kim, who has brought ssireum to kids at church camps around the New York tri-state area is having a hard time getting it to catch on, in part because few Korean immigrants have the leisure time to participate. But he’s become a legend in his community. "He is a very special person," said Il Tae Kim, president of the Korean Sports Association of New York. "But if it doesn’t get taught, it will be forgotten. He has the passion to keep it going more than most people." New York Times

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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“It is next to impossible to attain an understanding of foreigners by living alongside them. Ever since I learned of the situation in South Africa some 20 or 30 years ago, I have been convinced that it is best for the races to live apart from each other, as was the case for whites, Asians, and blacks in that country.”

—Ayako Sono, an author and government adviser, in a 2015 opinion piece in the Sankei Shimbun newspaper.

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