Last week, Naomi Osaka declared that she wouldn't be attending any press conferences during the French Open Tennis Championship.
In tennis, as in many other sports, athletes are required to be available to the media to conduct a post mortem on their match. Win or lose, the athlete is expected to front up to a gaggle of global journalists bombarding them with questions. These questions range from boring to standard to accusatory.
Why did you lose? Why didn't you change things up? What could you have done better? Why aren't are you doing better?
As an avid sports lover and a writer, I have always loved these press conferences. While many of the answers are predictable and give nothing away, sometimes you gain rare insights into tactics and strategy as well as a look at a player's personality. Of course, when they win, they are upbeat and positive, but it’s a different story when they lose.
But one thing I didn't ever consider before this week was how the players themselves felt about it.
Until Naomi Osaka made a stand.
The highest-paid female athlete in history
This isn't a sports article per se but let’s take a quick look at Naomi Osaka for those who don't know her.
Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father and moved to the United States when she was three. She is currently number two on the world female tennis rankings.
Her background, talent, and her outgoing personality have seen her attract many sponsors. She has 15 endorsement partners, including global brands like Nissan Motor, Shiseido, and Yonex. Last year she earned $37.4 million from prize money and endorsements, making her the highest-paid female athlete in history.
Off-court she is in a relationship with rapper Cordae. It seems she is living a perfect life. But regular readers of this publication will appreciate the positive exterior can mask a troubled interior.
A few days before the French Open commenced, Osaka tweeted that she wouldn't be doing any press during the tournament and noted the mental health impact it had on her and other athletes.
“I have often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health, and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
“If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press, or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation, then I just gotta laugh.”
It was an honest admission of her feelings, but if she was expecting initial support, it wasn't forthcoming.
Osaka isn't alone
While Osaka is the first athlete to boycott media, she isn't the first to address their mental health issues. Many, however, do not.
Of more concern is that of the college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% seek help. What is the reason for this disparity?
Research shows that 35% of professional athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, including stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. While the public sees fame and fortune, we don't see what lies beneath the surface.
More and more athletes are coming forward to talk about their battles.
“After every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Olympian Michael Phelps. He has admitted to using drugs to self-medicate and contemplating suicide. Not only has Phelps shone the spotlight on his own experience he has created the Michael Phelps Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to help others.
Former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL star Ricky Williams is another who has opened up. “I was 23, a millionaire, and had everything, yet I was never more unhappy in my life. I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn’t explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me.”
With statements like these and the high proportion of athletes suffering from mental health issues, you’d think Osaka would have received support for her stance, but the initial response was criticism.
Fines for sticking up for mental health?
French Tennis Federation (FFT) president Gilles Moretton came out criticizing Osaka. “It is a phenomenal error, and it shows to what extent it is necessary to have strong governance. What is happening is not, in my opinion, acceptable. It is tennis we want to promote.”
Other media and tennis players also criticized Osaka for not promoting tennis and for not giving back to the sport that had made her wealthy.
The tournament threatened to fine her $20,000 for every press conference she missed. The money doesn't matter to someone who earns so much each year, but the sentiment felt off. Especially when It was revealed that Osaka had emailed the tournament organizers explaining her reasons.
“I have nothing against the French Open or even the press members themselves. This stance is against the system requiring athletes to be forced to do press on occasions when they are suffering from mental health. I believe it is archaic and in need of reform. After this tournament, I want to work with the Tours and the governing bodies to figure out how we best compromise to change the system.” Naomi Osaka
Surely the tennis world could respect her decision and support it. This would have seen the perfect opportunity to promote mental health awareness. Instead, she was outed as a pariah and not good for tennis.
Today Naomi Osaka decided enough was enough. She made the brave decision to quit the French Open.
In her statement, she said, “Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can go back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” she wrote on social media. I never wanted to be a distraction, and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
The decision to quit and take some time away finally brought some empathy from the global media. It seems they finally took the issue seriously and understood the pressure and anxiety that Osaka felt the media placed on her. The fact that she had to apologize for her decision seemed to highlight the exact same issue she was trying to highlight.
“Naomi Osaka choosing to take care of her mental health, being punished for doing so and then apologising for taking care of herself seems to prove her initial point/concern perfectly.” Katie O’Brien, journalist
Athletes such as Martina Navratilova and Steph Curry tweeted their support.
“You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this — but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect naomiosaka” NBA basketballer Steph Curry via Twitter
Tennis officials and tournament organizers were criticized for their treatment of Osaka.
Ironically when Gilles Moretton read a statement to the media about Osaka’s decision to quit he left abruptly and refused to take any questions from journalists. I guess it’s only athletes who need to field questions.
The press conference at the end of the article
The question remains — should athletes be forced to attend press conferences and be bombarded with questions? Especially after a loss. The world loves to hear from athletes but at what expense?
We see the private jets, the sponsorship deals, the fame, but there is a hidden cost to all of this. Osaka has bravely shone a spotlight on this issue.
At first, she was ostracized and threatened with punishment. The tide has slowly turned towards Osaka and supporting her.
Let’s hope there are some positives from this unfortunate incident. That more athletes speak about mental health and that the media respects how it impacts athletes and allows time if and when needed.
And that Osaka is requested, but not forced to speak to the media.