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Couch: Add tennis star Naomi Osaka to Nike’s body count

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Nike used to sell shoes. Phil Knight sold them out of his car at track meets. The Swoosh was a side brand, growing because it was attached to successful athletes.

Now, it's bigger than the athletes themselves. In fact, today Nike creates the athletes to feed the Swoosh.

It created Tiger Woods and made him into a black golfer, which he was never comfortable with. It built the Nike brand on him, as Michael Jordan's career finished up. Then it spit Tiger out. His career is probably over. With its massive $42 billion in annual revenues, Nike created LeBron James as a social justice warrior. And the biggest name in basketball is too afraid to say a negative word about the Swoosh's socially unjust connection to China.

We see its latest work: Nike created the future of women's tennis, Naomi Osaka, and then spit her out and left her career in ruins. She was built into a black, Asian social justice warrior. A trifecta! She should be coasting this week to another U.S. Open championship.

Instead, we might never see her on a tennis court again.

"I feel like for me, recently, like when I win, I don't feel happy," she said Friday, after an early-round loss to the 74th-ranked player in the world at the U.S. Open. "I feel like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don't think that's normal."

She started to cry and then said she was "trying to figure out what I want to do. I honestly don't know when I'm going to play my next tennis match."

No problem. Nike, and all of Osaka's other endorsers, already got theirs. It wasn't just Nike; Osaka got $50 million in endorsements, the most of any female athlete in the world. As a Japanese-American, she had been primed as the face of the Tokyo Olympics.

In 2018, she beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final and was known as the sweet young newcomer. Three years later, at the same tournament, she left after throwing her racquet, hitting balls into the stands, and crying.

Her career is in ruins.

Why am I putting this on the Swoosh? Because Osaka's crash and fall this year is just so reminiscent of Nike's playbook.

Earlier this year, in the two-part HBO documentary "Tiger," we got a look at how the Swoosh played a role in Tiger Woods' colossal rise and calamitous fall. In Woods' case, it was about how Nike forced Tiger into a role he was uncomfortable with, as the societal hero and black golfer.

Woods signed with Nike as a 20-year-old in 1996. In "Tiger," Jim Riswold, advertising director for Nike, said that he brought up the discussion with Nike, "Do we want to play the race card?" Nike's not stupid financially. Using Tiger to reach a wider range of golfers and expand the golf universe is a no-brainer. They said, "F---in' yeah. Let's do this."

Nike started a campaign about how some golf clubs still would not allow Woods to play at them.

This was not a role Woods was prepared for. He went on the Oprah show and said he was frustrated when people portrayed him as black. He had invented a word for himself when he was a kid: He is a Cablinasian, a mix of Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian.

I remember the outcry of that well. I was in the middle of it. Oprah's people had invited me to that show, and when he said that, my story the next day in the Chicago Sun-Times was on the front page and picked up by Howard Stern, Dan Rather, and several other national media outlets. The show had been taped and wouldn't be seen until later in the week.

Oprah's people called that morning to say she was furious with me for turning his appearance into a racial thing. A few days later, the show got such good ratings that the same handlers called back and offered me free tickets to the show any time for me and my family.

Turning Woods into something he wasn't and keeping him under constant spotlight played a big role in his personal collapse.

"In reality, at that point in time, being Tiger Woods had taken its toll on Tiger Woods," Steve Williams, Woods' former caddie, said in the documentary.

With Osaka, her "handlers are her greatest enemy. They have her going in all different directions that she is not prepared for: social justice queen, face of the Olympics, documentary subject, swimsuit model. Did I forget one?

"Oh yeah, tennis champion."

In 2019, a few months after Osaka beat Williams, she won the Australian Open and reached No. 1. She should have been on a high. Instead, she fired her coach, saying she wasn't willing to "put success over happiness."

In 2020, Osaka showed up at the U.S. Open pushing the black-tennis-player angle. She wore a different custom Nike COVID mask each day with the name of a black person killed, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

This year, at 22, she was an endorsement queen, fully built for the Olympics.

Today's athletes' greatest relationships are with their marketers, often Nike. They are not with their coaches. Osaka's focus was no longer to become a better player but instead to do what her agents at IMG wanted, to do what Nike wanted.

They take a young, immature athlete without a fully formed worldview and create a brand beyond their depth. They are actually taking away the athlete's true voice and replacing it with a financially beneficial one. Then, they shine as much spotlight as possible.

Sometimes the athlete melts. That happened at this year's French Open, where Osaka said she wasn't going to talk to the media, then withdrew from the tournament under the backlash. She started talking about her mental health. She then dropped out of Wimbledon.

She lit the torch at the Olympics, lost early, cried in Cincinnati, and threw her racquet at the U.S. Open and cried again.

Osaka has to go away now to find who she really is and see if there is happiness there. Oh well, the Swoosh was fed.
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