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KOBE WOULD HAVE TOLD NAOMI: “TALK TO THE DAMNED MEDIA’’
Osaka’s boundless tennis career will remain in flux until she adapts to news conferences and shuns her agent, who is picking fights with media who simply are doing their jobs — as her mentor would say
Either answer the questions or stop banking the mega-millions. That is my message to Naomi Osaka, and if it appears insensitive, please realize that the inquiry that caused her to shed tears Monday was the journalistic equivalent of a shallow lob.
Aware that the world’s premier female tennis player sat out two Grand Slam events because she doesn’t like press conferences, a leading sports columnist engaged her in a fair discussion. Asked Paul Daugherty, who has covered the full gamut of athletes for decades at the Cincinnati Enquirer: “You are not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform. I guess my question is, how do you balance the two?’’
I’ve known Daugherty forever. He can be considerably more gruff than the measured approach he took with Osaka, who has spoken deeply about social anxiety issues while influencing other younger athletes — including Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics — to withdraw from competition when they aren’t feeling well. We’re all trying to understand why a traditional trait of champions in all sports — persevering through challenges, physical and emotional — has been supplanted in 2021 by an abrupt willingness to surrender when not in optimum mental shape. Also in doubt: why Osaka and Biles don’t grasp that their massive earnings are made possible by visibility and accessibility in media settings, where fans can see them and keep pouring money, time and energy into rooting for them.
Here was Osaka’s chance, after weeks of rest and a triumphant moment lighting the Olympic cauldron in her native Japan, to share her true feelings. Instead, she slipped into a familiar daze in her first press-conference format since fleeing the French Open in May.
“When you say I'm ‘not crazy about dealing with you guys,’ what does that refer to?” she said.
“Well,’’ said Daugherty, “you've stated too that you especially don't like the press conference format and yet that seems to be obviously the most widely used means of communicating to the media and through the media to the public.’’
“Hmm, that’s interesting,’’ Osaka said. “I would say the occasion, like, when to do the press conferences is what I feel is the most difficult, but ... (pause) hmmm ... (long pause) ... sorry, I'm thinking ... (another long pause).’’
The back-and-forth continued, concluding with these wandering words from Osaka: “For me, I feel like, this is something that — I can't really speak for everybody, I can only speak for myself — but ever since I was younger, I've had a lot of media interest on me, and I think it's because of my background as well, as you know, how I play, because in the first place I am a tennis player, that's why a lot of people are interested in me. So I would say, in that regards, I'm quite different to a lot of people and I can't really help that there's are some things that I tweet or some things that I say that kind of create a lot of news articles or things like that. And I know that it's because I've won a couple of Grand Slams and I've gotten to do a lot of press conferences that these things happen. But I would also say, I'm not really sure how to balance the two, I am figuring out at the same time as you are, I would say.’’
An appropriate next question would have been: Why, Naomi, can you so easily conduct post-match interviews with a Japanese TV network — one that pays you, by the way — and so nimbly pose for Vogue Japan and Sports Illustrated but have issues with questions from accredited media who don’t offer money or cover shots? But the moderator shifted to another question, about Osaka’s pledge to donate her winnings at the Western & Southern Open to earthquake relief in Haiti, where her father and coach, Leonard Francois, was born and raised. At that point, Osaka fought back tears and stepped away for several minutes, conferring with the moderator before returning, apologizing, answering the Haiti-related question and moving on to Japanese media.
Naomi Osaka is 23. She has won four Grand Slams, famously keeping her poise while Serena Williams was losing hers in the 2018 U.S. Open final, and has the skill and power to become the greatest female player ever. But if she can’t figure out her press conference phobia — or, I suspect, an aversion to answering reporters’ questions when she can control her messages via social media and her sponsors — the impediment threatens to sabotage her career. Because Naomi vs. The Media isn’t going away, thanks to an agent who prefers to exacerbate tensions than calm the storm.
“The bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now,’’ tweeted Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s rep with IMG. “Everyone on that Zoom (conference call) will agree that his tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Really appalling behavior.
“And this insinuation that Naomi owes her off-court success to the media is a myth — don’t be so self-indulgent."
Alleged self-indulgence is preferable to self-destruction, a condition Duguid is creating by furiously fighting a battle he can’t win. Daugherty wasn’t bullying anyone; he was enquiring, as his outlet’s name would indicate — and his subsequent column was as tender as the headline: “Naomi Osaka is honest, thoughtful and could help many other athletes.’’ Officials of the four Grand Slam events have pledged to help her when she feels depressed but, reasonably, still expect her to promote their events at press conferences. What, this standoff is going to continue the next dozen years? A compromise is necessary, moreso for her well-being than the needs of the media, but a middle ground can’t be reached if her agent is impossible to deal with.
She is more than capable of answering questions that are tilted in her favor, such as when Osaka asked if she was “proud of being brave’’ while withdrawing in Paris. “In that moment I wasn’t really proud,” she replied. “I felt it was something I needed to do for myself, and more than anything I felt like I holed up in my house for a couple weeks, and I was a little bit embarrassed to go out because I didn’t know if people were looking at me in a different way than they usually did before. But I think the biggest eye-opener was going to the Olympics and having other athletes come up to me and say they were really glad I did what I did. So, after all that I’m proud of what I did, and I think it’s something that needed to be done.”
Aiding and abetting Osaka’s stance are mushy members of the tennis media. There aren’t many regulars in the U.S., and some are terrific — Jon Wertheim, Greg Couch — but the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg went soft in launching an online “Daugherty Is a Bully” narrative. Might Rothenberg be attempting to curry favor with Osaka and Duguid to write her book or gain entry to the inner sanctum? The Times, which recently parted ways with sportswriter Karen Crouse due to her business relationship with swimming superstar Michael Phelps, might want to investigate. His tweets after the episode were embarrassing.
“Four Qs or so went smoothly, Naomi was doing well,’’ wrote Rothenberg, who free-lances for the Times. “Then someone from Cincinnati Enquirer asked her a fairly aggressively toned question about how she benefits from a high-media profile but doesn't like talking to media. Osaka tried to engage, but after her answer began crying.
“This was deeply frustrating. The tennis media people who know Naomi (and whom Naomi knows) had it going smoothly, and then a local reporter completely derailed it. Don't blame this on ‘tennis media’ again, folks.
“The topic itself wasn't terrible, but the aggressive tone from an unfamiliar person, after Naomi had already spoken in an earlier answer about how that's what she finds difficult in press conferences, got things going completely awry. (Naomi had many good moments otherwise!).”
Well, that’s good, Ben!
Personally, I don’t really care if Osaka answers another press-conference question again. But I do care that tennis aficionados, in a sport that begs for mainstream attention in America, will be cheated out of truly knowing her if her life is scripted and filtered. Did you see her recent three-episode docuseries, produced by LeBron James’ media company? She came off as curated, leaving us limp and perplexed more than inspired and excited to follow her. One memorable scene captured her frustration in betraying the late Kobe Bryant, who had mentored her in recent years.
“I’m feeling like I let him down," she said through sniffles, talking into her cellphone camera. “I’m supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis, but here I am ... losing these matches because I'm mentally weak. Now I'll never have the chance to talk with him again."
If Bryant were still with us, his advice to her would be simple: Figure out this mess with the media, as he had to do, and use them to her advantage. Don’t spar with the Cincinnati guy. Charm him, so he writes a flattering piece about you, a pattern that will continue for years if you stop trying to control the media and start milking them to your commercial advantage.
Now, isn’t that an easy solution to a needlessly complex problem?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.