Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and the media’s coverage of mental health in sports

Yesterday, during the women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Simone Biles, of the USA, lost her bearings while performing a vault, and stumbled as she landed. Soon after, she left the venue, accompanied by a medical official; when she returned, it was only to watch her teammates. All this happened early in the morning, US time. NBC, which holds the rights to the Olympics, was broadcasting the event live on Peacock, its streaming service, but not on linear TV. The Today show picked up the story of Biles’s exit—speaking from inside the venue, Hoda Kotb, an anchor, described it as “a really, really big deal” that sent “this ripple, this wave, through this arena.” Later, we learned that Biles had pulled out of the event because she wasn’t in “the right head space” to continue. Yesterday evening, Mike Tirico, an NBC anchor, addressed Biles’s withdrawal as he introduced the prime-time rebroadcast of the event. At the end of the broadcast, Tirico said, “whether or not we see the great Simone Biles compete again, hopefully the next stop on her journey is joy.” Early today, Biles withdrew from tomorrow’s all-around competition. It’s unclear if she will participate in events next week.

Tirico’s commentary, which won praise from many journalists and viewers, echoed the tone of much mainstream coverage of Biles’s exit—many news articles framed it sensitively, while prominent essays praised her “champion mindset” and “radical courage.” Journalists highlighted the enormous pressure on Biles’s shoulders, and US gymnastics officials’ role in exacerbating it. A number of commentators pointed out that the media, too, has been complicit in that pressure. Biles has been central to NBC’s promotion of the Olympics—so much so, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ann Killion argued, that she came to personify its “multibillion-dollar investment in these Games and one of the primary reasons that there was no way in hell the network was going to allow” them to be canceled. Tony Reali, of ESPN, noted that media judgment—and even media praise—are “stressors” that can affect a top athlete’s performance; Biles’s GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time, status is well deserved, Reali added, but “comes with a weight that gets compounded in a particle accelerator at such ungodly speed by we in the media.” Jeremy Littau, a journalism professor at Lehigh University, cited Daniel Boorstin’s work, from the 1960s, on the celebrification of the media, which even then was getting out of hand. “In media culture, the hero journeys to celebrity, and then they fall,” Littau wrote, summarizing Boorstin’s argument. “That is, media and consumers create celebrities so we can destroy them.”

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Littau also linked to a new article by Brian Moritz, a journalism academic who writes about sports media, and who argued yesterday that Biles’s withdrawal “is one of those news stories that will have a long-lasting impact on how we view athletes and sports” because it runs directly counter to the “sport ethic.” This theory holds that elite athletes share the belief that sport necessarily entails sacrifice, athletes should play through pain, quitting is bad, and winning matters. Moritz argues that sports media has played a key role in perpetuating the sports ethic, in no small part because it relies on athletes as sources and pundits—and yet “the reaction to Biles’s withdrawal has not been universal condemnation, as we might expect.” This reaction, Moritz writes, could be an outlier, reflecting Biles’s established greatness and huge popularity. Nonetheless, it does seem that “how we view athletes is evolving.”

The Biles conversation yesterday was able to build on a high-profile recent precedent: the decision of the tennis star Naomi Osaka to withdraw from the French Open, in May, after she skipped press conferences on mental-health grounds and was fined for doing so. Osaka’s withdrawal, like Biles’s, inspired many supportive media takes at the time—but it also (given the centrality of journalists to the story) occasioned much journalistic handwringing about players’ obligations to availability and transparency. Osaka has since reengaged with the press, but on her terms; she guest-edited a tennis magazine and contributed an essay to Time, writing in the latter that “the majority of tennis writers” believe the traditional press conference to be “sacred,” and have resisted her ideas about refreshing the format. “Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions,” Osaka wrote. “I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms—frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me.”

Much of yesterday’s coverage of Biles felt informed by the broader debate about mental health in sports that Osaka amplified. Osaka was present in Olympics coverage in a more immediate sense, too: she lost in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament, ending her hopes of earning a medal at these Games. Like Biles, Osaka was under enormous pressure to perform at the Games; she represents Japan, and lit the Olympic cauldron on behalf of the host nation at the opening ceremony on Friday. Osaka’s defeat inevitably intensified the media scrutiny on her, both domestically and globally. A reporter asked her if she had, in the end, found the pressure too hard to handle. “I mean, yes and no,” Osaka replied. “I should be used to it by now.” Though much coverage linked Biles and Osaka, some that I saw of Osaka’s defeat felt tonally blunter than that of Biles’s exit—perhaps because losing happens all the time in sports, whereas it’s rare for an athlete to choose to withdraw on mental-health grounds.

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In general, the mainstream media’s awareness of, and sensitivity around, mental wellbeing seems to have improved in recent times, and not just in sports: see also Britney Spears and Meghan Markle. (There will always be those who will pour scorn on Meghan or call Biles a loser; usually, it will be Piers Morgan.) Still, even well-intentioned journalists have work to do. If Biles had suffered a physical injury yesterday, it would still have been a big story, but it wouldn’t have been seen as abnormal. And no amount of supportive commentary will fix the root problem when it comes to the pressure we put on elite athletes, which, arguably, is a function less of tone and framing than of the sheer amount of coverage we produce. As The Guardian’s Barney Ronay puts it, modern sports stars exist, unlike their forebears, in a “twenty-four-hour rolling hell,” a place of “unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation.” Ronay recommends that we all sit back and listen. The media industry often feels more comfortable making the noise.

Below, more on the Olympics and gymnastics:

  • Bile: After Biles exited the competition yesterday, the US women’s gymnastics team achieved a silver medal. Russia took the gold. Outlets in that country hailed its team’s achievement; one, Championat.com, took a pop at Biles, suggesting that it’s “odd that she didn’t show leader’s qualities: she left her peers in the middle of the fierce fight. And this is a celebrated American champion?” Slate’s Yana Pashaeva has more. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast’s Julia Davis reports that Russian state media attacked Biles as part of a broader “rampage” against Black and LGBTQ+ athletes that has been “shocking even by the Kremlin’s standards.” Pundits have called the Games “a cesspool of degradation, debauchery, and ‘impurity,’” and suggested they should be segregated.
  • Misgendering: Openly trans athletes are competing in an Olympics for the first time, which is a big deal—and yet, as Britni de la Cretaz reports for Vice, some broadcasters have misgendered them. “It’s common for broadcasters to practice saying unfamiliar names before they go on air, making sure they can say it right. It’s a sign of respect,” de la Cretaz writes. “Similarly, they can practice unfamiliar pronouns before a broadcast, and if they slip up, they can issue a correction in the moment. It’s not really that hard.”
  • Ratings: Stephen Battaglio writes, for the LA Times, that while “ratings for NBC’s telecasts of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are down significantly from 2016,” they are “still among the most-watched TV events of the year,” with streaming also performing strongly. The viewership picture “shows the Olympics facing the same downward pressure experienced by other major TV events that reliably attracted massive audiences for decades,” Battaglio writes, “as online streaming provides more choices and competition for viewers’ attention.”
  • Gymnastics: In 2018, CJR’s Alexandria Neason assessed why journalists were slow to the story of Larry Nassar, the team doctor who abused US gymnasts, including Biles. “There is no easy explanation,” Neason wrote. “Women’s gymnastics is unlike any other sport, in that its top athletes are so often children. It’s organized both on the individual level and in teams; there is no local franchise for kids to buy jerseys in support of, no mascot, no mainstream, year-round spectator culture. Sports like basketball and football attract beat writers in a way that wouldn’t work as easily for gymnastics, which has, historically, been left absent a critical press.”
  • A broader lens: For more insightful reading on gymnastics, Dvora Meyers is out with a new essay, for FiveThirtyEight, making the case that it’s time to end the era of the teen gymnast. “There’s no evidence that girls in gymnastics need to specialize quite so young,” Meyers writes. “And there are pressing reasons to rethink the entire early developmental timeline of female gymnasts.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.