The Media Today

Naomi Osaka and the meaning of press freedom

June 1, 2021

Last Wednesday, Naomi Osaka, the world’s second-ranked women’s tennis player, who represents Japan, announced on social media that she would not be doing any press at the French Open, which was coming up. “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.” On Sunday, Osaka won her first-round match; afterward, she took a few questions from an on-court interviewer, but then, true to her word, missed the post-match press conference. In response, tennis officials fined Osaka fifteen thousand dollars for breaching her media obligations and threatened her with expulsion from the French Open, as well as suspension from future Grand Slams.

Yesterday, Osaka took the decision out of their hands by dropping out of the French Open and announcing a hiatus from the game. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote online yesterday. (At that tournament, Osaka beat Serena Williams in the final, but her victory was overshadowed by a row involving Williams and the umpire; spectators booed loudly, including during the trophy presentation.) “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.” Later, Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Federation of Tennis, addressed reporters about Osaka’s withdrawal. He read a brief prepared statement, in English and French, reiterating officials’ commitment to players’ well-being, then left without taking any questions.

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Tennis stars past and present were divided in their reaction to Osaka’s stance. Some supported her; others stressed that talking to the press goes with the job; still others juggled both positions. “I am a little torn as I try to learn from both sides of this situation,” Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. Reaction in the media world was split, too. Some prominent commentators assailed Osaka: Piers Morgan dubbed her “Narcissistic Naomi” and accused her of a “cynical exploitation of mental health to silence the media” that is “right from the Meghan and Harry playbook of wanting their press cake and eating it.” (Morgan, who never misses an opportunity to bash the Sussexes, recently stormed off the set of his own TV show after a colleague noted this fact.) But many journalists were more supportive. “Facing unwelcome questions, even in defeat, does not seem like too much to ask,” Christopher Clarey, who covers tennis for the New York Times, wrote. “But one of the takeaways from l’affaire Osaka may be the realization that some players really do find it all too much to bear.” The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew argued that the modern sporting press conference is no longer “a meaningful exchange” but rather “a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible.” Young athletes are “expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting, in front of an array of strangers and backed by a piece of sponsored cardboard.”

Such dynamics are not unique to Osaka, nor to tennis—elite sport is, these days, a money-spinning media phenomenon, and stars are routinely required to engage with the press or face the music, even if the questions are often inane and the answers of limited interest. In 2010, the National Football League fined Randy Moss, then of the Minnesota Vikings, twenty-five thousand dollars for declining interviews; he subsequently decided to show up and answer his own questions. A few years later, Marshawn Lynch, then of the Seattle Seahawks, stopped doing formal interviews and racked up hefty fines in the process; when he attended press availabilities, he would give nonanswers, infamously telling journalists ahead of the 2015 Super Bowl, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” (He later took out a trademark on the phrase.) More recently, the basketball player Kyrie Irving and his team, the Brooklyn Nets, were each fined twenty-five thousand dollars late last year, after Irving refused to speak to the press. Following the fine, he wrote on social media that “I do not talk to Pawns”; he denied that he meant to attack journalists, but has since continued to decline interview requests. More fines have ensued.

The reasons why athletes—indeed, anyone—may refuse to engage with the media, or do so only perfunctorily, can range from personal prickliness and mistrust to the desire to make a political statement. Mental health, of course, is its own rationale, and Osaka’s statement is a reminder that elite sports’ media requirements must take it into account. Writing in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal, Matthew Gollub argued, in the US context, that elite athletes with social anxiety disorder should be entitled to “reasonable accommodation” in their media contacts, in line with jurisprudence under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “While professional athletes are public figures, that does not necessarily mean they are ready for their close-up,” Gollub wrote. “Numerous professional athletes deal with a variety of mental health disorders, such as social anxiety, which makes them no different from UPS drivers, county clerks, and other professionals who have received reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

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What such accommodation ought to look like here, and how it might apply in a globalized sports landscape, is less clear. In her statement yesterday, Osaka said that she had offered to speak with French Open officials about their “outdated” media policies once the tournament is over; it’s unclear if they’ll take her up, but even some observers who backed the decision to punish her, on fair-competition grounds—media requirements are burdensome for every player, after all—have advocated a review of the rules to which every player is subject. Responding to Osaka’s initial comments last week, the Women’s Tennis Association Tour said that it would welcome a dialogue around mental health but insisted that “professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.” Responsibility and opportunity, however, are different concepts—and neither addresses the key issue here, which is obligation. The public can benefit from hearing from high-profile athletes. But a large part of the equation is also promotional, on the part of elite sports bodies and tournaments, and that can veer easily toward exploitation.

Journalists are accustomed to conceiving of press freedom in terms of obstacles to their work. The stakes of the Osaka story are low on such terms; as Liew put it, “In many countries journalists are literally being killed for doing their job. Meanwhile in Paris, tennis journalists are facing the prospect of having to construct an article entirely from their own words. One of these things is not like the others.” There is, nonetheless, a worthwhile conversation to be had about sports reporters’ access to stars, and the role of what are, ultimately, powerful corporations in mediating it; indeed, as I wrote last year, pandemic-era restrictions intensified this conversation across multiple sports. The Osaka story reminds us that this mediation doesn’t just involve limiting press access, but forcing it. Neither arrangement looks very free to me.

Below, more on Naomi Osaka and sports:

  • The French Open: On Saturday, the official Twitter account of the French Open posted pictures of other players, including the American Coco Gauff, fulfilling their media obligations with the caption, “They understood the assignment.” The tweet was subsequently deleted; Reuters has more. At one press conference, meanwhile, a reporter prefaced asking Gauff whether she’d like to play Serena Williams in the French Open final by noting: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American, too.” The question was slammed online, with some observers arguing that it vindicated Osaka’s decision. TheGrio has more.
  • The Olympics: Earlier this month, a reporter asked Osaka whether the Olympics—which were postponed last year and are now set to take place this summer, in Osaka’s native Japan—should go ahead amid rising covid cases in Tokyo. “I’m an athlete, and of course my immediate thought is that I want to play in the Olympics,” she said, “but as a human, I would say we’re in a pandemic, and if people aren’t healthy, and if they’re not feeling safe, then it’s definitely a really big cause for concern.” Last week, Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper that is an official Olympic partner, published an editorial calling for the Games to be canceled on public health grounds.
  • “The rise of the athlete podcaster”: In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Hua Hsu reviewed the recent growth in podcasts and other media hosted by, or prominently featuring, elite athletes. “Players have grown infatuated with sharing their perspectives in real time, in direct, unfiltered ways,” Hsu writes, “and athletes everywhere are seizing the means of production.” Irving’s relationship with the media has “curdled,” but he has sometimes given lengthy interviews to other stars. “It was clear Irving no longer felt that reporters could convey the full range of his thoughts or priorities,” Hsu writes. Basketball “seemed no more important than the clout it gave him, which he could then apply to the issues—police brutality, Native rights, food insecurity—that he cared about.”

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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.