French Open’s Handling of Naomi Osaka Exit Puts Focus on Athletes’ Mental Health
By Bob Brady
We’re wishing the best for Naomi Osaka, the number two women’s tennis player in the world, who said she will be taking time away from the sport before the Olympics. Her agent released a statement at the end of last week noting that, “Naomi won’t be playing Wimbledon this year. She is taking some personal time with friends and family. She will be ready for the Olympics and is excited to play in front of her home fans.” Osaka’s situation, which appears to be concluding with the decision to forgo Wimbledon, began at French Open (the Roland Garros in Europe) when she decided to skip mandatory media obligations. It also brings ahead the pressure and stress that pro athletes experience.
Pro leagues and tournaments have several rules governing athletes speaking with the press, and this holds true for players competing in the French Open. A situation that could have been handled with better communication, Osaka withdrew from the tournament because organizers of Roland Garros required her to speak with media, per her contract.
Stating concerns of mental health in a post on Twitter on May 26, Osaka made the decision to forgo speaking with media and take a hefty fine. But according to officials, Osaka and her team went quiet, and they only learned of the decision via her social media post as opposed to speaking directly with them about the situation.
Then on May 30, organizers wrote that “Naomi Osaka today chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct…
A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves.”
From that moment on, by upholding a strict and probably outdated policy, an opportunity for French Open officials to put the health and well-being of the player first turned into an image crisis (which also, unfortunately, placed more media attention on Osaka).
This situation with Naomi Osaka, however, is part of larger question regarding these media obligations. We have seen athletes in recent years conduct interviews out of sheer reluctancy but are they really needed?
A few examples to get us thinking if they are:
- NFL running back Marshawn Lynch famously hated media interviews and would regularly give one-word answers or say, “thanks for asking.”
- Especially after a loss, media interviews can be hard for athletes. Shortly after losing the Super Bowl, NFL quarterback Cam Newton went quiet and ended the press conference early. One can see he’s in no mood to answer questions, so who can blame him after he just lost the biggest game of his career.
- In 2015, following matches in the Australian open, a reporter asked multiple women’s players to twirl – including Eugenie Bouchard and Serena Williams (not quite relevant to the tennis match).
- The repetitive nature of questions, or even the oddness of questions, can understandably turn athletes off from wanting to speak with the media. After the Oklahoma Thunder lost to the Utah Jazz, NBA player Russell Westbrook ended a media interview after a reporter asked him if the Jazz won the game, or the Thunder lost the game.
- In this last example, the media didn’t even feel obligated to attend. Super Bowl winning quarterback Eli Manning, had one (that’s right, just one) reporter show up to his post-game press conference following a loss in 2010.
There are certainly reasons for athletes to address the press as it helps promote the player, the team, the league and even the sport overall. There are also the sponsors who are endorsing the athletes.
Press conferences even help connect players to fans, which is essential to the livelihood of any sporting event.
But nowadays, athletes often say more in their social media posts than they do in the pressers, and they can say it directly to their fans/ followers. With greater freedom, athletes likely feel more comfortable in their own homes than sitting in front of 10, 20 or 30 reporters.
Le’Veon Bell, a running back in the NFL, has never shied away from being vocal on Twitter to his 1.8 million followers. Most recently he said he’d rather retire than play for Kansas City head coach Andy Reid.
And in Naomi Osaka’s case, as noted previously, she stated via Twitter that she would forgo speaking with media as opposed to speak directly to The French Open officials. She then stated more than she likely would during any type of press event in a May 31 tweet in which Osaka elaborated on her exit from The French Open, noting she’s been struggling with depression since 2018, and that she’s not comfortable speaking in front of media since it gives her anxiety.
Is it possible that if Naomi Osaka expressed her concerns with officials, they would have made an exception to the media requirements? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
Most importantly, this situation has put the mental health of athletes front and center. Fans and officials are forced to recognize that pro athletes are people too who have the same daily struggles as anyone else. What fans see on the field from their favorite stars doesn’t properly communicate the pressure and stress these athletes feel when the cameras are off, and no one is watching.
And sometimes, they may just need a break and a day off from the questions.
Whether it is your first time in front of a reporter or if you are a seasoned veteran on camera, Xenophon can help you manage the situation through practical media training services. Find out more here.