June 3, 2021

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday and wrote on Twitter that she would be taking a break from competition… The stunning move came a day after Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and moved with her family to the U.S. at age 3, was fined $15,000 for skipping the postmatch news conference after her first-round victory at the French Open. She also was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued with her intention — which Osaka revealed last week on Twitter — to not ‘do any press during Roland Garros.’” AP News

“The leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments reacted Tuesday to tennis star Naomi Osaka’s stunning withdrawal from the French Open by promising to address players’ concerns about mental health.” AP News

Many on both sides defend Osaka and call for greater awareness and sensitivity regarding athletes’ mental health:

“Had Osaka declined to speak to the press because of a physical injury — a sprain, stress fracture or even a migraine headache — we doubt she would have been fined or threatened with expulsion; needs time to recover, we might say. But because people cannot outwardly see a mental health problem, many tend to dismiss it…

Many athletes have admitted struggling with mental health challenges. Swimmer Michael Phelps has spoken about suicidal thoughts and depression. Kevin Love of the NBA has acknowledged having panic attacks during games. The [New York] Times said 35% of athletes deal with any of a variety of such problems, including eating disorders, burnout and anxiety… It’s time now for sports and all other aspects of society to respond by developing a greater awareness of mental challenges and discussing how to erase their associated stigmas.”
Editorial Board, Deseret News

“By refusing to speak, tennis player Naomi Osaka has opened any number of important conversations: About a generational divide in talking about matters of mental health. About effective communication in the age of social media. And, perhaps most fundamentally, about what we should be allowed to demand from our sports heroes…

“When conservative personality Laura Ingraham told NBA star LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ in 2018, her comment was rightfully seen as dehumanizing and rejected out of hand. James had the right to speak out, or, more precisely, later kneel down; Osaka has a parallel right to stay quiet and play her sport, especially if subjecting herself to press inquisition is painful and damaging to her mental health. Athletes are human, too; it may be their job to play, but they do not exist solely for our entertainment. By sitting the French Open out and reminding us of that truth, Osaka is doing not just herself but also ‘the sport’ a favor — whether Grand Slam organizers realize it or not.”
Christine Emba, Washington Post

Many also criticize the initial response of the tournament administrators, and sports press conferences in general:

“A good rule of thumb, if you are in charge of putting on one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events, is that you do not want the biggest story of that event to be that you’ve chased off one of the best and most recognizable athletes in your sport… One lasting truth that should come out of the 2021 French Open is that, in major sports, press conferences are increasingly not worth the trouble they create. It’s time for both sports media and the athletes they cover to settle on a new way to talk to each other…

“The best solution would be to move to a pool system, where immediate pre- and postgame media access is reserved for a small—but rotating and equitably agreed-upon—cast of reporters. Five or six media types around a player’s locker, or standing out in a hallway, can have something more resembling an actual conversation with their interview subjects. A limited number of TV cameras and spotlights would make for better conversation too. These interviews would be distributed widely for reporters’ use, just as press conference quotes are today. Nobody would be losing any scoops, given that it’s impossible to get a scoop at a public press conference anyway, and the media-source discussions couldn’t be less substantive than they are now.”
Alex Kirshner, Slate

“The real issue is that there is no issue, other than the feudal officiousness of tennis establishment tamales. Journalists can seek interviews with players, and the latter can decide for themselves whom they want to talk with, when, and in what format. As it happens, tournament conditions are seldom favorable to useful interviews. The mental and physical preparation is continuous, since tennis is a win-or-go-home format. There is no reason not to respect certain players’ preference to stay out of social and media contact for the duration…

“Mats Wilander, a former champion here and one of the more astute commentators on the sport, criticized Miss Osaka for not playing by the rules. True, contracts and all that. But labor contracts are often Band-Aids over latent conflicts, and sometimes ‘tis the better part of valor to break them and pay the price in order to get somewhere more sensible or fair.”
Roger Kaplan, American Spectator

“Instead of making media appearances mandatory (especially those after tough losses) and fining athletes who opt out — which creates an inherently negative perception of anyone trying to protect their mental health — we could simply give athletes incentives to opt in

“I promise you that there are more than enough athletes who would want to talk to the media, even after a loss, if it were not mandatory, and who would be happy to answer the same question rephrased 10 ways if it meant they picked up an extra couple of bucks here and there. Meanwhile, no amount of cajoling is going to get a big-name superstar to talk who doesn't want to, even if you force him, her or them to be there (see: Marshawn Lynch). Some people just don't like being on camera or sharing their experiences when they're vulnerable, and that's fine. We as a society need to learn to better respect people's mental health in all lines of work.”
Chris Kluwe, NBC News Think

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“Long before Osaka's rise in the tennis world, powerhouse Serena Williams has faced routine racist, sexist and dehumanizing media coverage, and rulemaking that's singled her out and needlessly policed what she could and couldn't wear. In one particularly upsetting case, Williams was barred by the French Open from wearing a catsuit, despite how wearing pants rather than a skirt helped her health after blood clots she'd faced throughout her life resulted in dangerous complications during her pregnancy…

“Black women athletes' physical and mental wellness and overall success have more often been punished and discouraged than celebrated and rewarded. The conditions that led to Osaka leaving the French Open are a part of this reality, which makes her exit on her own terms even more inspiring…

“All too often, conversations about labor exploitation in sports are shut down when it's pointed out how much high-profile professional athletes are paid. But this ignores how much predominantly white-led institutions make from mostly Black athletes' labor, not to mention the fact that young, college athletes aren't even paid, all while the NCAA is a billion-dollar enterprise. And it ignores another truth: Labor exploitation isn't just about pay — it's about the conditions to which athletes are subjected that harm their mental and physical health, that dehumanize and even endanger them. By withdrawing from the tournament, Osaka didn't just prioritize her mental health. She refused to be used, and stood up for all athletes in the process.”
Kylie Cheung, Salon

“Women have long functioned as bit players in sports industries designed by and for men. Now Ms. Osaka, who at 23 is the top-earning female athlete in history, is part of a growing group of female athletes who are betting that they’ll be happier — and maybe perform better, too — by setting their own terms. Increasingly, they have the stature and influence to do so… Ms. Osaka’s abstention has only proved the scale of her influence. If the organizers of the French Open wanted press, they got it.”
Lindsay Crouse, New York Times

From the Right

“As a former tennis and squash tournament player, who has also captained several teams containing top British names — I have occasionally had to face a hostile press room after a defeat…

“It is, I freely admit, a difficult experience: coming straight off court, sweaty, emotional, exhausted and replaying in your head all the moments when you hit the ball just long through over-eagerness, or failed to return a routine shot that would have given you the match. In that frame of mind, stupid or needling questions from journalists — some pretty ignorant about tennis — can compound the agony…

“Yet the audience — the millions who love tennis — are interested to know why you think the game went wrong, just as they are interested when you win. It is the job of journalists to find the answers to these questions. To put it simply: them’s the rules. And the chance to be paid life-changing sums to play a game you love is worth the questions.”
Sally Jones, Daily Mail

“What is lost in the Naomi Osaka-press conference debate is that the sports media mostly humanizes athletes. The media makes you, the fan, care more because it is its job to tell you what you can’t see…

“In 2001, after Mariano Rivera gave up the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series, he answered questions with the grace of a champion. In a career built on playoff success, we once again learned more about Rivera, the person, in defeat. The media tells the story of these athletes in a way athletes, themselves, can not…

“After retiring from playing, Derek Jeter began a website called The Players Tribune that was supposed to be athletes unfiltered, as if they were sitting at a keyboard, like in-shape bloggers. The site has had a few hits, but mostly it missed because it actually was a Trojan Horse. It was PR that was presented as the truth. It could only tell filtered stories. That is mostly what you will get if there is no regular give-and-take between athletes and reporters, while everyone just tweets.”
Andrew Marchand, New York Post

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