The news came out: Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open. Surprising? To most, yes. Why would a 23-year-old, who is ranked #2 by the Women’s Tennis Association, withdraw? Why would she not continue to assert her dominance as a worthy player, to leave a legacy at such a young age?
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Check her Instagram, and you’ll know exactly why.
Following a post regarding her mental health surrounding press conferences and media interactions, the US Tennis Association, French Tennis Federation, All England Lawn Tennis Club, and Tennis Australia released a joint statement, explaining that she would receive a $15,000 fine because Osaka “chose not to honor her contractual media obligations.”
But why, exactly, are athletes obligated to face the press and receive probing questions, answer questions they’ve already acknowledged repeatedly, and discuss devastating losses? And what is the effect on athletes? The answer: it’s negative.
Naomi Osaka vs. The French Open
On May 26th, Osaka posted a note on Twitter, saying she would not participate in press conferences at the French Open. She explained the toll it took on her mental health, and that it was nothing personal; rather, she was “just not going to subject [herself] to people that doubt [her].”
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 26, 2021
It was understandable, and the response was, in general, supportive. However, tennis organizations were not sympathetic. In response, the joint statement from the US Tennis Association, French Tennis Federation, All England Lawn Tennis Club, and Tennis Australia claimed that allowing Osaka to step back from her press responsibilities would show favoritism, as it was important that “no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation.”
The statement continued: “We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement.”
In response, Osaka wrote a note on Instagram, explaining that she would be withdrawing from the French Open. On top of that, “I’m gonna take some time away from the court now.” Fellow athletes commended her on taking a stand against “outdated” rules. Usain Bolt commented praying hand emojis; acclaimed tennis star Venus Williams wrote “So proud of you. Take care of yourself and see you back winning soon!”; and NBA player Kyrie Irving emphasized her followers’ support, writing “We are all with you Queen.”
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But still, The Roland-Garros referee issued her that $15,000 fine “in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct.”
Then, the ironic part of the statement came: “The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams. We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player well-being.”
They then claimed that Osaka had not engaged in conversation regarding how “the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue, and what might be done to address it on site.”
Which begs the question: if they fined her $15,000, were they genuine in their attempts to reach out? Or is this statement simply attempting to save face? It appears to be the latter, because in her withdrawal post, she said she had written to the tournament already and that “[she] would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.” There was no joint statement in response to her withdrawal.
But it’s not just Naomi Osaka. Athletes in every facet of the sports industry face these issues, too.
Athletes vs. The Press
It’s interesting to see how the relationship between athletes and the press has evolved over the decades. Legendary tennis player, Billie Jean King, shared “In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today.” This comment came during Osaka’s decision to withdraw, as King reflects on the responsibility professional athletes have to the media.
My thoughts on Naomi Osaka’s decision not to speak with the press at Roland-Garros. pic.twitter.com/BzvHDU3DQY
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) May 30, 2021
One of the most famous quotes regarding a passive interaction at a press conference came from Serena Williams. Following her quarter final win in the US Open, a reporter dug deep, trying to understand her lackluster demeanor. “Normally, you’re smiling when you win. You laugh. What is this tonight?”
Serena put him in his place immediately with a brutally honest answer. “It’s 11:30…. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here.… And I don’t want to answer any of these questions. You guys keep asking me the same questions…. You’re not making it super enjoyable. Just being honest.”
Marshawn Lynch, of the Seattle Seahawks football team, had a similar short demeanor with the press in a Super Bowl Media Day interview. He began the interview by saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined. So y’all can sit here and ask all the questions y’all want to, I’m going to answer with the same answer.” And he wasn’t simply making a joke with the media – every single question was answered with “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” ABC News posted the video on YouTube, titling it a “Bizarre Super Bowl Interview.”
But was it a bizarre interview? Or was it an athlete who was tired and simply wanted to go home, not engage with tens of reporters asking boring questions for sound bites?
LeBron James also walked out of an interview following their loss to the Golden State Warriors, thanks to a mistake made by his teammate (who had forgotten the score). Pummeled with questions regarding the play, a reporter asked “did you know if he knew the score?” James proceeded to pick up his sunglasses and bag and exit the room without an answer. He has been known for clap backs, but his statement by walking out of the room said everything.
The Effect Of Press On Athletes
Performance In Mind wrote a piece on the impact of the media on athletes. In it, they state that “the media highlighting expectations around how athletes may perform can cause stress as athletes become sensitive and highly aware of how they and their performances are perceived.” The media can also cause “increased anxiety and tension for athletes trying to achieve specific times or placings that have been highlighted by the media.”
The media getting into athletes’ heads can cause stress and anxiety, which can then negatively affect a player’s performance. It can also be painful to relive a loss in front of multiple reporters, especially one that resulted in a lowered ranking or exit in the playoffs. Just like the rest of us, athletes need time to process negative emotions – they’re human, too. The problem: they’ll be fined should they not put salt in the open wound immediately after.
Osaka Summarizes In Her Notes
As Naomi Osaka wrote in her note announcing her refusal to engage with the press, “[Athletes] are often sat there and…asked questions that bring doubt into our minds.” And in her withdrawal note, she left on a positive note, saying she “really want[ed] to work with the tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans” while also acknowledging her depression.
And those who were initially on the fence about Osaka’s decision have since come around. Billie Jean King’s immediate reaction was that she was “torn” by Osaka’s decision. But after time and reflection, she has released a statement in support of Osaka.
It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression.
Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs.
We wish her well.
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) May 31, 2021
But only time will tell if the organizations within all sports will apply these changes, or whether they’ll continue to add to athletes’ mental health struggles. And while I hope they will, more shall be revealed – good or bad.
“I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.”
Serena Williams on Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open pic.twitter.com/bkDeB0JWtW
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 1, 2021
What are your thoughts on how the tournament treated Osaka? Let us know in the comments.
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