Naomi Osaka Doesn't Owe More Than She Already Gives

Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)

Over the weekend fans, sportswriters, and Instagram mental health experts pontificated on Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open, after organizers fined her $15,000 for putting her own mental well-being over press conferences with reporters asking her the same inane questions on an endless loop. Much of the argument was that these post-game interviews are part of Osaka’s job and, as such, she should simply do the job as any other person must do and be grateful. But when fans, owners, and reporters alike demand so much from athletes, they become something like commodities in the public eye.

Osaka will go down in history someday as one of the greatest and most influential tennis players to set foot on a court. This is in large part due to her talent, but also her full devotion. She puts in unseen hours and unseen years to get to the status of worldwide name recognition in a historically racist and sexist sport. She works relentlessly, as most women athletes do—not just to win, but to earn the respect of her industry and the fickle fans waiting for her to make a single mistake at every turn. And there is no amount of money that can truly compensate for the level of work it takes to be a Japanese Black woman in a predominantly white sport.

When the media speaks about Osaka—or to her—it is almost always in the context of comparison to Serena Williams, like her 2019 cover of Time, which styled her as “The Heir.” But even after achieving the accomplishment of beating Serena Williams in 2018, fans were still displeased and booed Osaka while she was receiving her 2018 US Open trophy. They booed her for doing her job, which is playing and winning tennis matches; since then, according to Osaka’s latest statement, she’s suffered “long bouts of depression” that factored into her choice not to speak to the press during the French Open. This imagined personal contention between Osaka and Williams—blatantly cast due to race and gender—was only played up further by the media, despite the reality that they’ve both repeatedly expressed their respect and admiration for one another.

As a public figure, Osaka is aware that the media will cover her as they see fit—and when they do so abusively or irresponsibly, she is within her right as a person and as an influential athlete to set personal boundaries for the sake of her own mental health. After all, if the highest-paid female athlete of all time cannot blaze this trail, then who can? Certainly not the Williams sisters, who were abused by the press for years. The few times Serena Williams stood up for herself—like when she got angry that a ref and several outlets implied she was cheating in the 2018 US Open—she was branded as aggressive and compared unfavorably to her white counterparts. The primary thing Osaka is inheriting from Serena Williams, and the other Black and Asian players that came before her, is a toxic system that does more to dismantle a woman athlete of color than it does to serve her.

A press pass or a VIP ticket should not equate to unfettered access to Osaka or anyone else, especially in post-game interviews that rarely provide fans much insight about a player anyway. It is not an athlete’s job to “sell the game,” a concept unduly put on women athletes, who are considered responsible and eventually blamed for poor revenue numbers across women’s sports. Their job is to play. If the game is to be sold then there are entire marketing departments and overly dramatic Nike commercials about striving for greatness that can do that job without taxing players further than is needed.

It wasn’t but three years ago that the French Open and tennis as a whole was under fire for their outdated policies on players’ clothing, after it banned a protective catsuit Serena Williams wore to prevent blood clots after her near-fatal pregnancy. The rules that prevent players from opting out of post-game press conferences without penalty are of a bygone era. There is no logical reason why these kinds of post-game conversations even exist when the number one question asked is usually how or why did this person win or lose this game. How many times can anyone answer that question? Sportswriters can craft perfectly fine coverage of a game they just watched for free without gathering in a room to yell useless questions at a player who is likely still mentally processing a match. And if they can’t do that, then maybe it’s not Naomi Osaka who isn’t getting the job done.

DISCUSSION

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redoscar

I understand her argument, that media questioning was causing her emotional distress to the point where it could become debilitating, if not on the court then off it.

However, like any other job, she has a responsibility to report to her employer (French Open/Grand Slam officials) her concerns and then work to address those concerns. Tournaments, teams, nearly any sporting event hire media relations personnel to moderate questions to athletes, including rejecting questions deemed disrespectful or not relevant as well as denying press access to those reporters with a questionable history (asking personal questions or harassing interviewees have all gotten journalists their credentials revoked from MR folks in the past). All she had to do was say “XYZ topics are causing me mental distress — is there any way we can better moderate this?” and the media relations teams would have gladly worked with her and the media to ensure everyone was as satisfied to the best of all parties. She’s also under no obligation to provide one-on-one interviews to media.

By flat out refusing to do her media commitments for the tourney, she effectively walked off the job. She then refused to engage officials who wanted to meet with her and discuss her concerns. Maybe blame it on her youth (which she seemed to do in part in her withdrawal message), but the way some people, athletes, media, and fans, viewed this was not as an indictment of her mental health or anything else, but rather of her immaturity in dealing with it, effectively skipping out on press conferences when she didn’t get things her way. That tactic has been tried before by other athletes, male and female, and it has never worked out in the long run.

It may not be an athlete’s job to promote the game, but if they want to promote things outside of their game such as Osaka’s widely praised BLM work last year, then that athlete needs to understand that their media obligations are not a one-way street, and if it impacts their own mental health, then it is their responsibility to address that, not others.