Kawhi Leonard and his ironic ‘Fun Guy’ title points to a paradox in the athlete realm. They whip tennis balls at blistering speeds, dunk baskets with sheer aerial power, and kick goals into opponents’ nets in front of 40,000 chanting fans. But when it comes to the media spotlight, they retreat, and often they flounder. Why can’t we accept athlete-introverts?

When it comes to categorizing professional athletes, the label of introvert is too often gleefully slapped onto stars who shoegaze during pressers. Fans have always yearned to connect with their idols, and in the social media era accessibility is at an all-time high. Stars tweet thoughts, preen on Instagram, and share vignettes of their day-to-day lives on Snapchat. But what about athletes that refuse to feed fans’ hunger for access? Often, they are deemed ungrateful, selfish and introverted—with the third adjective used as a pejorative. 

Few of us are truly full-blown introverts or extroverts. Most people are ambiverts, who live in the middle of the spectrum with jaunts to either side depending on the circumstance. In popular culture, being an introvert has been conflated with shyness, but not all introverts are shy. Whereas shyness is a fear of social judgements, introversion is a question of how you recharge: introverts derive energy from being alone, whereas extroverts are energized by their social surroundings. 

According to Toronto-based sports psychologist Beth McCharles, “You can have an introvert with an ego who loves all the attention, although it’s more rare.” McCharles sees strengths and weaknesses at both ends of the personality spectrum. In her experience as a clinician and performance coach, “It’s not about whether someone is an extrovert or an introvert—self-awareness is what is important when it comes to creating the best dynamics. Does an athlete realize when they need to pull back, or step up?” 

Although both personality types have strengths according to McCharles, author Susan Cain sees Western society as perpetually disempowering introverts. According to the Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop author, there’s a Western societal bias against introverts. In her 2013 book, Cain argues that “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” 

Kawhi Leonard has been called the i-word after going through a very bad public breakup with the Spurs in 2018. Last July, the defensive powerhouse was traded to the Raptors. In San Antonio, the fans suffered a heartbreak-packed season that saw Leonard playing a paltry nine games while nursing a quad injury. Rumours swirled as the three-time All-Star remained radio silent. Rather than set the record straight, the star withdrew, leaving fans to posit theories about why the hyper-talented two-way player was refusing to return to the game despite being medically cleared. 

Around the same time, Leonard also failed to negotiate a $20 million, four-year extension of his shoe deal with Nike’s Jordan brand. The taciturn player was accused of having a brand problem; fans theorized that Leonard’s introverted personality contributed to the shoe deal falling apart.

While Leonard’s perceived introversion is discrediting, other stars are celebrated for foregoing the limelight. French national footballer N’Golo Kanté, for instance, has been called a “humble hero,” one of the “nicest menin football,” and “ridiculously modest.” What makes him so loveable while someone like Leonard is seen as distant?

Four years ago no one knew who Kanté was, but he has since become a household name in Europe. He’s won back-to-back Premier League titles with two different football clubs (Chelsea and Leicester City) and was integral to France’s recent FIFA World Cup victory. Despite his meteoric rise, Kanté remains the epitome of reservedness (he’s far from effusive, doesn’t go to parties, keeps to himself off the pitch), but instead of fans seeing that as a flaw, they’ve embraced that side of Kanté. When Kanté was too timid to ask to hold the World Cup trophy, he solidified his reputation as the soft-spoken, tireless player who kills it on the pitch, but shies to the sidelines of life. 

Tennis’s newest star Naomi Osaka went from relative unknown to making world headlines after defeating Serena Williams at Flushing Meadows last September. That’s a lot of pressure sitting on the shoulders of a 21-year-old. Especially one who’s uncomfortable in front of the cameras. The number-one ranked player has said that on a regular day she usually speaks fewer than 10 sentences, so for her to be forced out of her introvert comfort zone, to perform not just on the court but in front of the cameras, is a big ask. Despite some perceived flubs (like forgetting to smile when receiving the trophy after her recent Grand Slam win), Osaka, like Kanté, has become a media darling because of, not in spite of, her awkwardness. 

Osaka is vocal on social media about her emotional struggles. After tournaments, the top-ranked player has posted apologies on Instagram. Most recently, she apologized this past January in Brisbane for having “one of the worst attitudes on court.” It’s perhaps this self-awareness, this seeming raw openness with the public that exculpates Osaka from the same harsh criticism that’s thrown Leonard’s way. 

“I keep telling myself to be more mature but that seems like it’ll take a while,” writes Osaka, punctuating the admission with a self-effacing eye-roll emoji. “[The] only thing I can do is keep growing and learning,” she concludes to a deluge of supportive comments, thumbs up, and heart emojis. 

Despite Osaka’s media missteps and the odd on-court tantrum, her clumsiness in front of the cameras has yet to result in Leonard levels of negative backlash. When she drops a Pokémon reference as an answer at a presser, she’s not painted as childish, or aloof, but endearing. The Japanese brands, including Nissan, Shiseido, Nissin (the Cup Noodles company), and All Nippon Airways, have embraced the star. As have Japanese fans, though Debito Arudou of The Japan Times warns that these fans might be the fair weather kind, keen to cheer for the winner who has put Japan atop the podium, but not in it for the long haul.

In Arudou’s article “Warning to Naomi Osaka” he points to the fact that Osaka, despite her love of anime, sushi and her efforts to learn Japanese, will never be seen as truly Japanese. (Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, but was raised in Florida.) Osaka’s mixed background and American upbringing are embraced by the Japanese fans and sponsors, so long as the tennis pro’s star keeps rising. 

“When somebody with Japanese roots wins …  Japan claims them as Japanese,” writes Debito, who calls this practice “Nippon-claiming.” According to Arudou, Nippon-claiming is “part of a universal phenomenon found in highly racialized societies” where athletes like Osaka are deemed champions because of their Japanese characteristics  (you’re in if you win), “but if you’re losing, it’s due to your foreign traits, and you’re out.” This theory has yet to be tested, in this case, as Osaka continues to prove herself on the court, winning match after match. 

Is Osaka’s perceived introversion celebrated because she is winning? Does the fact that she plays a solo sport also affect the public reaction to a more closed-off athlete? Or is it perhaps because she represents Japan, a country that celebrates introversion? If that is the case, then why is Kanté’s quietness lauded while Leonard is penalized by the press? Both play team sports in Western nations that idolize extroversion. 

Olympic hopeful Asia Hogan represents Canada on the rugby pitch, and has begun racking up track meet wins for York University, as well. As someone who competes in team sports and as a solo athlete, the first-year communications student believes that “when you are part of a team you are representing more than just yourself, but when you are in an individual sport, it comes down to you at the end of the day—you are representing the integrity of your own self.”

She sees different expectations from others depending on which sport she’s competing in: When running, she can tune out and do her own thing; when playing rugby, she not only needs to engage, but she feels the pressure to be liked by her teammates. She’s expected to be more than a body that can tackle, pass, and perform, but to be a true team player.

When asked why she thinks Leonard struggles with his image, Hogan says that she thinks it’s unreasonable to expect someone like him to be a team player with the press when media relations isn’t his game. “He just loves basketball and wants to play the game he loves. Asking him to discuss relationships with his teammates isn’t what he signed up for,” she quips.  

Perhaps part of the negativity around Leonard is his refusal to let the fans in, to be a team player in the broader sense. He has no social media accounts, he makes no apologies, and when he’s injured he holds his emotions close to the chest.

“It’s like watching a movie and not getting what you want,” explains McCharles, hypothesizing why fans sometimes turn on an injured athlete. “Fans can put an unbelievable amount of pressure on athletes,” she says before elaborating that it’s often a one-way relationship with fans taking, but often not giving back to a star once their losses begin to outnumber their victories.

There’s a mentality that top athletes owe fans their bodies. These are our twenty-first century gladiators, compensated with salaries most of us can’t even fathom. It’s expected that these stars will give us their everything, push through injuries, and deliver championships. These stars can train and hone skills, but they can’t will their limbs to heal. The stress piled on by the demands of appeasing a crowd that wants answers as to when a player will return to their peak performance levels is psychologically taxing. 

Recovering from an injury is when an introverted athlete most needs their space. Stress only hinders healing, so when the crowds mob someone like Leonard while he’s hurt, that is the opposite of what he needs. Although he doesn’t say it, what athletes like Leonard ask for with their silence is space. Space to heal, space to energize, space that will enable them to deliver the wins their fans crave. 

Leonard doesn’t seem to care about anyone’s hot takes. Or at least, that’s the image he’s putting forward in his latest New Balance ad campaign. He’s washed his hands of Nike, and refuses to indulge in the public’s desire for him to be some gregarious star that he isn’t. Instead, he’s leaning into his introverted self, and there he’s found strength—along with an undisclosed sum from New Balance. 

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