Naomi Osaka and LeBron James have been named the Associated Press Female and Male Athlete of the Year, respectively. While their in-game performances were undoubtedly dominant throughout 2020, it's what they accomplished outside of the arena that truly garnered attention.
For Osaka, she continually spoke out on topics of racial injustice and police brutality on her way to winning the U.S. Open for her third Grand Slam title. The 23-year-old, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, joined other athletes across various sports in choosing not to play in a pre-scheduled event in August to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
“It was such a tough year for so many people,” Osaka told AP. “And then watching the police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name just a few) in the summer broke my heart. I am proud of my U.S. Open victory, but more so that I got people talking about the real issues.”
“There are clearly so many worthy issues," she continued, touching on the Blake shooting. "This one especially resonated with me because of my own personal up-bringing; and also while the tennis tour was paused, I was able to watch and read news at length for the first time in my life. This summer in the U.S., tensions were high and reached boiling point. It was the right time for me to speak up.”
At the U.S. Open, Osaka brought further attention to Black victims by showing up to matches wearing face masks with the names of George Floyd, Taylor, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and Philando Castile.
“To be honest, I really didn’t stop to think about what others would think of my actions. Other people’s opinions weren’t going to stop me from doing what I know in my heart was the right thing to do,” Osaka said. “The strong voices of Colin (Kaepernick) and LeBron were certainly positive influences for me and gave me strength in my own convictions.”
From a performance standpoint, Osaka went 16-3 during a tennis season largely impacted by COVID-19. In August and September, specifically, she enjoyed an 11-match winning streak that included the U.S. Open.
AP's Male Athlete of the Year, LeBron James, also led the charge by bringing awareness to a number of racial and social issues throughout 2020, from the Black Lives Matter movement on to the presidential election.
“I still know what I do on the floor and obviously, I give everything to the game,” James told AP. “But I can make a greater impact off the floor right now, more than I can on the floor. And I want to continue to inspire people with the way I play the game of basketball. But there’s so many more things that I can do off the floor to help cultivate people, inspire people, bring people together, empower them.”
James and his More Than A Vote organization made it a priority to get more Black voters involved in the 2020 election, helping some earn back their voting rights. They also had more than 42,000 volunteers working at polling stations for the November election.
While focusing on the election and the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, James also dedicated time and energy to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. When his I PROMISE School shut down because of the pandemic, for example, he had his team deliver meals to their homes, including Thanksgiving. James also broke ground on an affordable housing project for 50 families this year.
On the court, LeBron led the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship, securing his fourth title and fourth finals MVP. This also gives him his record-tying fourth AP Male Athlete of the Year award.
To delve deeper into Naomi Osaka and LeBron James' impactful 2020, visit the Associated Press.