Naomi Osaka: Self-care vs. Journalism

Hunter Shelton

Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka shone a light on a potentially glaring issue in the sports journalism world this week in Paris.

Osaka, 23, announced on Monday via social media that she withdrew from the French Open and will “take some time away from the court.” The announcement came following a $15,000 fine that she received after not attending her mandatory news conference following her first-round win in the tournament on Sunday. Osaka announced in the lead up to the French Open that she would not be doing any press, citing mental health as the reason.

In addition to the fine, Osaka was threatened with stiffer punishment, including disqualification and suspension, if she were to continue her media blackout.

 “This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended,” Osaka said in her announcement. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal.”

Osaka also wrote that since winning her first major at the 2018 US Open, she has suffered “long bouts of depression” and felt “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media.

Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation (FTF), made a statement to the media on Monday following Osaka’s announcement.

“First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” Moretton said. “As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, we remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving all aspects of players’ experience in our tournaments including with the media like we have always tried to do.”

While this statement seemingly stands with Osaka, the FTF’s actions suggested otherwise. Moretton took no questions from the media following his statement, a rather tone-deaf and hypocritical decision that displayed zero self-awareness.

On Saturday, the official French Open Twitter account posted pictures of other players attending their media obligations with the caption “They understood the assignment.” Although later deleted, the tweet showed the hand of the French Tennis Federation in a vivid and clear jab at Osaka and her decision, yet another example of an organization being out-of-touch in the moment.

The Women’s Tennis Assocation (WTA) also issued a statement regarding Osaka’s comments in an email to the Associated Press.

“Mental health and awareness around it is one of the highest priorities to the WTA,” the WTA said. “We remain here to support and assist Naomi in any way possible and we hope to see her back on the court soon.”

Osaka’s announcement has triggered debate and conversation in the tennis, sports and journalism worlds.

Many athletes and pundits have voiced their support for Osaka, admiring her decision to do what she feels is in everyone’s best interest. Others have criticized Osaka, saying that media is a part of the job and comes with the territory.

In Osaka’s statement, she noted that she “apologize[d] especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt.” Osaka understands the position in which her decision puts journalists.

Press conferences are a necessity in quote retrieval leading to headlines in stories. It’s the prime opportunity right before or after an athlete competes, where journalists can willingly bombard someone with questions that they aren’t prepared for. It has been labeled as being a part of the gig and seemingly unavoidable.

While this is an understandable request to allow the press to ask their questions so they can do their jobs, Osaka provides her perspective in a way that relates to the athletes.

“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,” Osaka wrote. “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,” Osaka continued. “I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

The press gauntlet must be an exhausting one. It would be foolish to think that every athlete enjoys doing press and doesn’t get tired of it at some point. These are world-class athletes competing at the highest level in front of millions of people daily; that alone is something that requires mental toughness.  While making some time to answer a few questions doesn’t seem like a big ask at face value, one challenging question after a bad practice or match could be detrimental.

Sports journalists can easily critique Osaka’s choice, as it’s one that impacts them as well. Without the safe haven of a press conference or an interview, reporters are left high and dry as they find themselves quote-less. If everyone were able to avoid talking to the media, sports journalists would have a problem on their hands.

The words of a writer go a long way, but the response and thoughts of the athletes that journalists cover are what tie things together. When this ingredient is missing, journalists miss out, as do the fans of these athletes.

But as easy as it may be to find fault in Osaka’s choice, it should be respected. Being a world-famous 23-year-old battling her depression and anxiety while trying to compete on a global stage is a daunting task, and although her choice may hinder a journalist’s ability to do their job, there is zero reason to crucify her for making a decision that benefits her mental health.

This week will not be the final straw for sports journalism. It will however, set a precedent for how the media should and should not handle a situation like Osaka’s. The French Tennis Federation dropped the ball on all fronts, denying the thought of one of its players’ self-care, forcing them into a choice of defiance or deflection, a lose-lose scenario for all parties involved.

The media must do its job while not smothering the athletes, and sports organizations must recognize that the needs of these athletes are not just physical. If these changes fail to happen, then Osaka’s decision could set a precedent that could force necessary but drastic alterations down the road.