Last week was a rough one for fans. Rather, it was a tough week for the athletes that some fans and media members purport to support. Our time spent spewing obscenities online while cooped up inside has now spilled out into the ‘normal’ world. The latest target is the №1 Women’s Tennis player Naomi Osaka, after announcing her withdrawal from the French Open on Monday via social media. Her post was in response to the French Tennis Federation fining her $15,000 and other Grand Slam organizers issuing a joint statement that threatened future suspensions for ignoring “her media obligations.” Osaka sent out a post on social media four days before the tournament stating she would not participate in any post-match press availability, citing mental health reasons.
The criticism came quickly and most notably from British broadcaster Piers Morgan, who took the extreme stance that Osaka was exploiting mental health issues to avoid speaking to the press. The majority does not share this sentiment (I hope). However, his continued description of her as a “spoiled brat” whose earnings — as the highest-paid female athlete in the world — compels her to comply, is a common theme I’ve seen discussed. Are athletes obligated to deal with the monotony of extra-curricular tasks in exchange for riches galore? It doesn’t sound like much to ask for someone who isn’t in that position. That is why when an athlete challenges the established order, they are labeled selfish, ungrateful, and unappreciative of whatever level of fame they have achieved. Osaka is at the top of the mountain. In this case, she is challenging a part of tennis culture that makes her uncomfortable. That is reasonable.
This stance drew the ire of many in media, particularly journalists whose work often depends on the quotes they get from the athletes they cover. That is also reasonable. What is not reasonable is the peanut gallery that believes Osaka ought to talk or get out because she owes Tennis. I have seen people arguing she should fall in line and quit being a distraction for something they believe to be rudimentary. Yet, this is not about, as Morgan framed it, “eating her cake and having it too.” This is about the pressure on a 23-year-old who has taken the mantle in an individual sport without a great track record of compromise and understanding. The committees’ threat of future suspension aligns with that pattern. There is no Women’s Tennis union to support Osaka and no team to have her back. She is alone.
So why can’t she shrug it off? “Play through the pain,” so to speak. Well, she has. In her second post, she referenced 2018 as the year when she began experiencing depression. That was also the year she won her first major, accelerating her ascent towards the summit of success she presently occupies. Add to that the pandemic, which forced all of us to persevere through various levels of pain, and it becomes an unprecedented situation.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published a study about the mounting mental health effects, summarizing that the “well-being of our communities will predictably suffer during and after COVID-19.” Quarantining caused many to undergo irritability, anger, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. If someone you knew endured any of these, you’d likely feel empathy and compassion. Shared experience isn’t a unique thing. That’s where this story is different. Most of us don’t share a similar professional experience with someone as currently outstanding as Osaka. But most of us do know what it’s like to harbor doubt. I’d bet even Piers Morgan does.
So why isn’t that applicable to this situation?
When viewers tune in to watch Osaka, they expect extraordinary entertainment from the first serve to match point. She made it clear that won’t happen if she participated in press conferences. Whether it was because she did not want to be reminded of her previous failures at Roland-Garros or any other reason, frankly, should not matter. This is not a case of avoiding adversity. It is an example of what happens when a champion loses more battles with themselves than with their competition. This time of year is the beginning of a rigorous Grand Slam season: the French Open followed four weeks later by Wimbledon and the U.S. Open a month after. While Osaka’s competitors stare down the same barrel, they are not carrying the same baggage. After her last statement, it now seems like it was only a matter of time before a withdraw went down.
So, after Osaka withdrew, the critics got their wish, right? Wrong. Everyone lost. The tournament is without its biggest draw and best talent. Viewers have less of a reason to tune in. Journalists’ jobs become more difficult in the absence of a compelling storyline. All so people can wag their fingers at Osaka to let her know she isn’t larger than the game. That’s ludicrous. The face of an individual sport stepped away for the sake of her self-care. We have begun conversations with other groups about mental health, but, as of now, that discussion is not afforded to someone in Osaka’s tax bracket. That is a sign that the conversation surrounding athlete’s psychological well-being needs to change.
Last year after winning the U.S. Open, Osaka was asked by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi what message she wanted to send by wearing masks with the names of Black victims of police brutality. “Well, what was the message you got?” she replied. Her inquiry aimed at invoking an internal response. This time, she didn’t ask the question, but she didn’t need to. The worldwide answer to her actions proves that. Osaka, the self-proclaimed introvert, has never wanted to be the center of the story. However, Tennis, media, and the public turned it into the biggest one in her burgeoning career.
This week, she again reminded us to ask, “what did we get out of this?”