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OSAKA IS UNDERMINING AN EPIC CAREER WITH MEDIA BOYCOTT
It’s stunning when a young, thriving athlete prefers to go home than attend news conferences — and, to be clear, her French Open withdrawal isn’t about ``mental health’’ as much as athlete empowerment
We’ve seen Naomi Osaka bravely protest police brutality, wearing seven different face masks with the names of victims. We’ve watched her maintain composure on the court as her idol, Serena Williams, lost hers during a savage bullying of a U.S. Open umpire. We’ve marveled as she stared down Williams at the Australian Open and reduced her to competitive mush, destroying her chance of tying the career record for Grand Slam victories.
So we’re supposed to believe that Osaka, poised to become the world’s pre-eminent female athlete, suddenly quivers at the thought of reporters asking her questions after a match? To the point she has stunningly withdrawn from the French Open, one of tennis’ four major events, rather than realize how she and her sport only prosper from worldwide media coverage — and how it has helped create a wealthy, privileged life for herself?
She at least should be truthful about her agenda, which has mushroomed into a referendum on athlete/media relations in the 21st century. Sensitive as we all should be about depression, I’ve followed Osaka enough to know her issue isn’t primarily about ‘‘mental health’’ — her stated reason for refusing to speak to media in Paris, prompting officials to fine her $15,000 and threaten to disqualify her, which led her to quit Monday. No, this is more about control, the inevitable defiance from a new generation of athletes who see no reason to appear at organized press conferences when they can manage their own public narratives.
‘‘I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris," Osaka wrote in a lengthy Twitter post. ‘‘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."
I feel sad for her. But I’m just as baffled about why she’s undermining an all-time career because she feels some tension at media gatherings. Osaka is far from the first athlete to protest media responsibilities out of fear, resentment, distrust or arrogance. But she is the first, in recent memory, to openly declare a media boycott before an important competition, then go home when she didn’t get her way and the sport threatened her with severe sanctions.
‘‘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,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media.
‘‘I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense. I'm gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans."
Translation: They no longer need the media — and haven’t for a long time in the social media age. The movement is athlete empowerment, here to stay as long as new revenue cascades into sports via media and gambling companies. The backlash has been building, with periodic media shutdowns from NBA star Kyrie Irving and others, and Osaka is daring to risk her career trajectory to challenge authority. Shouldn’t a confidante talk to her, advise her otherwise? It makes no sense why someone who has been treated well and even warmly by the global media, as Williams deals with the barbs, would construct a wall that invites a war she cannot win. Just 23, Osaka has used media to her advantage early in her career, presenting a likable, socially aware image mixed with Gen-Z fun. Never has a young athlete been prouder than she was last September, when she celebrated her U.S. Open championship by laying on her back, her hair famously spread in a silhouette, and staring out at a world she already had conquered. When asked what message she was sending by wearing seven masks with seven names — from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor — during her seven matches, her answer was unforgettable.
‘‘`Well, ‘what was the message that you got’ was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking,’’ she said before going inside a room at Arthur Ashe Stadium and answering more questions about her social justice causes.
She must not have been depressed that day. But on days when she is, why not appear at the press conference and say so? That way, she doesn’t damage her career and shrink her platform. When tennis great Chris Evert says, ‘‘I feel like Naomi is starting to form an aura around her now of almost invincibility, something we’ve seen for 20 or 25 years with Serena’’ — why disrupt it with obstinacy? Without regular media visits, Osaka allows conduits to dry up across the planet and restricts the impact of her messages. It’s her life, her career. But if she thinks she can rely exclusively on Twitter, Instagram and post-match stadium conversations — conducted with friendly interviewers and adoring fans — for the next dozen years, I can assure her the strategy will backfire. At some point, sooner than later, she’ll need mainstream media to promote her career, to publicize her missions and, as the world’s highest-earning female athlete, to name-drop her sponsors. And she’ll want to abandon what surely will linger as a daily distraction, especially as snarling, offended commentators take shots.
For now, she is adamant, explaining on her social platforms: ‘‘I’ve 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. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me. I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.
‘‘`Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple journalists have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with most of them. However, if the organizations think they can just keep saying, ‘Do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh. Anyways, I hope that considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
French Open officials showed as much empathy as Pepe Le Pew. With cross-referenced support from the other three Grand Slams — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open — they underlined the fine print in their rulebooks and sounded warnings. You might ask, ‘‘Why default her?’’ Oh, because they enjoy having their tournaments covered by news agencies worldwide. And they believe players, even the best, should market the sport that has enabled their lifestyles. Of course, Osaka’s attorneys would have a hoot poking at their rationale and championing freedom of speech, at least in America.
In a joint statement, the four Slams wrote: ‘‘As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offense investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.). 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. As a sport nothing is more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honor their commitments."
They make a good point about not allowing preferred treatment, not that Osaka wanted to hear it. ‘‘Anger is a lack of understanding, change makes people uncomfortable,’’ she tweeted Sunday, hours before withdrawing. Would tennis officials actually have disqualified her and enforced future Grand Slam suspensions? Trust me when I say every major sports league and organization — and thousands of professional athletes — were monitoring closely.
Addressing questions, particularly minutes after a match, can be about as fun as a double fault. But the sessions, over time, can provide a penetrating window into one’s persona. A connection is formed with fans — forget the media — who can pump athletes with adulation and money for a lifetime.
Rather than make decisions selfishly, Osaka could have sought advice from a pioneer who at first needed the media, then seized the attention and thrived. She might know Billie Jean King as the female star who beat the old man in ‘‘Battle of the Sexes,’’ but King’s image saturation in the ‘70s made it possible for Williams to achieve superstardom for two decades … and for Osaka to blow off news conferences as she ascends to the top.
Or, if she isn’t into chats with OGs, why not visit with Rafael Nadal? He could have been smeared by the media in his career infancy, with his court theatrics and flamboyance, but he recognized how a combative entanglement with reporters made no sense. ‘‘I mean, we as sports people, we need to be ready to accept the questions and try to produce an answer, no?’’ said Nadal, who is chasing his mind-numbing 14th title on the French clay. ‘‘I understand her but in the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally are traveling who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We’re not going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be popular, no?”
Not long ago, Osaka said of her goals, ‘‘The biggest thing I want to achieve is — this is going to sound really odd — but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player.’’ This is NOT the way to go about it, as that fictional girl won’t get to know her.
I don’t want to think in sinister terms, but is it possible this is Osaka’s way of running from the challenge of playing on clay — her career bugaboo? It didn’t help when her sister, Mari, cited the clay factor as the reason for the boycott, writing on Reddit, ‘‘Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad at clay. At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome (round one) she was not ok mentally. Her confidence was completely shattered and I think that everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay. This isn’t true and she knows that in order to do well and have a shot at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can. That’s the first step any athlete needs to do, believe in themselves. So her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind. She’s protecting her mind hence why it’s called mental health.’’
Before you knew it, Mari’s post was deleted, followed by another that she had ‘‘f—ed up.’’
The anxiety in Camp Osaka is the talk of tennis. Already, the only player ahead of her in the world rankings, Ash Barty, senses a crack in the Naomi Curtain. ‘‘At times, the press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s not something that bothers me,” said the Australian. ‘‘I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much.”
From Nadal and Barty to Roger Federer and even Serena, the greats of tennis tend not to view themselves as larger than the game. No-Show Naomi apparently has other thoughts. So far, she’s down big in the first set, losing to herself.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports and media columns for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio 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.