In Defense of Naomi Osaka: Journalists must do better

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open must spark a national conversation about how journalists treat athletes, and how society regards mental health.

Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the Women’s Tennis Association, has made the courageous decision to withdraw from the 2021 French Open. Her battle with depression and anxiety has made attending press conferences, a significant part of her job, unbearable. Osaka described doing post-game interviews as “kicking a person while they’re down,” forcing her to drop out of a significant tournament due to mistreatment. As journalists, we must recognize when our work threatens the well-being of athletes.

The fact that Osaka contemplated withdrawing in order to protect herself is ridiculous. Osaka should not have to explain her situation if it means revealing personal information regarding her mental health. Last week, she attempted to open up about her refusal to do press conferences on behalf of her mental health. The French Open, in turn, fined and threatened her with expulsion from the tournament.

Athletes who refuse to participate in press conferences are fined $15,000. Osaka, aware of this fine, asked for the money to go towards a charity regarding mental health.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings very true every time I see a press conference or partake in one,” she said in a statement on Twitter.

Osaka’s protest is more than a famous athlete throwing out money to escape the press — it is an attack on how sports journalists treat athletes, especially when it damages their well-being. She officially dropped out of the French Open on May 31, citing that she has suffered from anxiety and depression since the U.S. Open in 2018. After winning the controversial 2018 U.S. Open against beloved Serena Williams, Osaka was met with boos and jeers from the crowd while tears streamed down her face. Her win was overshadowed by her humiliation, opening up the door for the press to add onto the drama instead of congratulating her momentous victory. Mari Osaka, Naomi’s sister, has even weighed in on how the press have damaged her mental health. She stated that Naomi felt particularly anxious playing on clay courts. Every time she played on clay courts, the press would always pester her about her “poor performance,” feeding into her anxiety.

Athletes' first obligation is to their sport; however, speaking to the press has always been a part of their contract. But if it keeps them from feeling comfortable in their job, is it worth it?

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, journalists are specifically asked to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm and discomfort” and “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”

While doing interviews can be a vital way for fans to connect to the journey of a player, asking harassing questions does not benefit the journalist or the audience — it only simplifies them to a dramatic headline. The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew has established this disturbing aim for journalists as “a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible.” In no way is this an ethically appropriate way for journalists to interact with athletes.

“I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well,” Osaka stated on Twitter.

The absolute disrespect for Osaka’s mental health proves that much of the public views her as an object of entertainment for their screens, not a human being. British broadcaster Piers Morgan called Osaka “world sport’s most petulant little madam.”

In response to Osaka’s withdrawal,The Daily Mail gave Morgan a platform to write a sexist and racist column against Osaka, comparing her “weaponi[zation] of mental health” to that of Meghan Markle. For a news source to continue to double down with hate after Osaka has publicly stated the damage to her mental health is an extremely harmful journalistic choice. If Osaka had to withdraw due to physical injury, there would be no outrage, yet the press fails to recognize the equal significance of mental health.

Osaka is not the first athlete to refuse to do press, but it is undeniable that she is the first to be met with double outrage due to sexism. Years previously, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch would famously rack up fines for skipping press conferences. When he did attend, he would repeat the phrase, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” His phrase became trademarked, while Osaka’s inability to do press earns her the title of “arrogant spoiled brat.”

The role of athletes has evolved over the years, now taking celebrity or influencer status. People no longer care about an athlete’s stats but everything from their political views to romantic relationships. Osaka is known for more than just her tennis skills; she wore masks featuring names of Black men and women killed by the police and openly discussed being multiracial. When doing press weighs more on athletes than the sport athletes train for, it can be intensely draining on their mental health. However, athletes can connect on their own terms with fans via their own social media.

As a journalist who also struggles with mental illness, it would be absolutely hypocritical to say that Osaka must stick to her contract and do press. While I recognize that press is important in illustrating the narrative of an athlete, accommodations must be made for athletes who struggle with mental illnesses. The fact that the French Open threatened one of the biggest tennis players in the world for putting her well-being first is dangerous to the future treatment of athletes.

Osaka’s withdrawal is a reality check for the public about the importance of mental health, and how it must be prioritized above anything. Journalists must do better in doing fair and respectful reporting for athletes and accommodate to fit the needs of players.

_To help support those who suffer from mental illness, donate to https://my.rethink.org/donorhub/?_ga=2.233567198.1595688925.1622567985-1649975997.1622567985_

Edited by Sophie Chappell | schappell@themaneater.com

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