OPINION: AP’s Female Athlete of the Year is a tennis player… again

Naomi Osaka is as deserving as any top athlete to be the 2020 Associated Press (AP) Female Athlete of the Year. She won her second US Open title, became the highest paid female athlete in history and was an integral part of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But there’s an issue becoming clearer every year that’s causing Associated Press to lose its credibility: Tennis seems to be one of the only women’s sports the AP pays attention to. 

There has not been one contact-sport athlete named the AP Female Athlete of the Year since 2011. The winner is either a gymnast or a tennis player nearly every time, which makes it seem like the panel of sports editors who vote them in are only invested in the women’s game when the athletes wear skirts and bodysuits.

Wikipedia’s list of past AP Athlete of the Year recipients.

If female athletes want to be noticed and paid well, they apparently have to play sports that are tied to traditional gender roles. Tennis and gymnastics have often been sports in which viewers unfortunately celebrate women’s looks and etiquette over talent, much more so than other sports.

The bias doesn’t just lie in the Associated Press. Earlier this month The Athletic tweeted a picture of a bracket labelled “Top 20 Sports Moments of the Year.” The only female athlete on the list was Osaka. She was also the winner for Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year alongside WNBA champion Breanna Stewart. 

Osaka undoubtedly had a successful year in four tournaments, reaching the semifinals in the Brisbane International and the finals in the Cincinnati Masters. She was just as successful off the court with her activism. But let’s put things into perspective. While Osaka won one tournament, this was one of the biggest years in the history of women’s sports. The NWSL shattered viewership records and had the most social media engagement of any professional sports league. The WNBA increased their viewership by 15% and saw Stewart win finals MVP for the second time in three years. Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick to help Portland Thorns FC win the NWSL Fall Series Community Shield and also became the world’s top scorer in soccer, out of both men and women, with 185 goals. Lebron James and Sue Bird both won their fourth championship titles in the NBA and WNBA, but it was James who was named AP Athlete of the Year while Bird wasn’t even in the running. Women in sport made some mighty moves this year, yet Osaka seems to be one of the only female athletes big broadcasters seem to care about. 

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 19: Natasha Cloud marches to the MLK Memorial to support Black Lives Matter and to mark the liberation of slavery on June 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael A. McCoy. Courtesy of CNN.)

Same goes with activism, with which women’s sports led the way in 2020. WNBA players were the loudest and passionate in all of sports leagues for the Black Lives Matter movement. Players used their individual platforms to fight hard for social justice, just like Osaka, but in a team sport each voice fades into a single contribution to the greater WNBA. And when women’s sports don’t get enough media attention as is, there’s no way a single WNBA player will be put in the same limelight as Lebron James for their activism. 

Tennis has an advantage over other women’s sports. It’s often on TV, more in the spotlight, therefore getting better funding. Of course people are going to believe tennis players are the female athletes on top. But while superstars like Osaka and Serena Williams are doing fantastic, there are athletes in sports with baggy shorts doing just as well. Associated Press needs to start recognizing them too.

Featured photo: Naomi Osaka. (By Al Bello. Courtesy of ABC News.)

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