Naomi Osaka’s fast-paced rise to tennis stardom has been one of the more impressive sports feats in some time. She has been a dominating force, racking up four grand slam titles, leading to her current ranking of No. 2 in the world. Her superhuman athleticism combined with her undeniable charisma has made her a fan favorite and thus a coveted interviewee. Recently, Osaka experienced harsh, widespread criticism for her decision to use her voice to shed light on the rapid, hectic news cycle that surrounds the sport industry and its effect on her mental health. This past month, Osaka pulled out of the Wimbledon tournament due to personal reasons. This was not her first withdrawal, as Osaka also refrained from participating in the French Open earlier this year due to mental health challenges.
Professional athletes, especially the most successful ones, have long been romanticized throughout the entire world. Professional sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, and interviews with popular athletes have become vital to the success of the industry, which can help explain the public outrage following Osaka’s refusal to provide one.
The importance of mental health still has not been appropriately recognized in most places, and sports are no exception. Struggling with mental health is hard enough when you’re not under extreme public scrutiny, so it’s understandable that someone like Osaka would try to stay out of the public eye as she deals with her internal struggles. Osaka is not the first athlete to struggle with her mental health publicly. In recent years, many athletes with mental health concerns of their own have sought to address the harmful stigma that exists around the topic in the sports world.
NBA star Kevin Love has been extremely public about his internal hurdles, even during his most successful years on the basketball court. “All I was left with was me and my mind. I was living alone at the time, and my social anxiety was so bad that I never even left my apartment,” Love said in an interview with The Players Tribune. Quotes like these helped normalize the stigma. No amount of money or fame can erase or prevent problems. Love was an example of someone who took advantage of attention from the media and used it to fight mental health stigmas. Other athletes chose to avoid addressing the media at all.
In 2015, Marshawn Lynch, former NFL running back, was quoted in a press conference as saying, “I am just here so I don’t get fined.” This was after Lynch made many attempts to avoid participating in press conferences. At the time, his flippant comment was funny, but after everything Naomi Osaka has endured, it takes on a new sinister meaning. Lynch clearly felt that despite his fervent desire to avoid the media, he had no choice, and the criticism Osaka has received following her decision to put her foot down showcases that he was right to feel the way he did.
Expecting athletes to remain professional and level-headed for hours on end answering tough questions is unreasonable. NBA superstar Kevin Durant shares a similar outlook to Lynch on the media. In 2019, he notably addressed one writer directly, clearly fed up by their persistence on getting a headline. Durant, like most athletes, had trouble understanding why his incredible performance on the court wasn’t enough for his fans or the media.
The situation with Osaka has sparked a debate regarding whether professional athletes should be obligated to do press conferences or media appearances. While I understand the debate, I don’t believe ending all press conferences is the answer. Despite the negative press coverage many athletes and teams receive, media involvement is what drives most sports. The media is responsible for maintaining the attention of the fans who watch the sports they cover. And without fans’ attention, certain sports could lose their appeal because the sense of community that sports provide is what makes them so universally loved. Fans coming together to root for storylines and their favorite players and teams is what makes sports such a bonding experience for everyone, regardless of background.
The billion-dollar industry of professional sports is not created solely through its on-field play. It is the romanticization of the athletes and teams — the subplots of rivalries, drama and the history of the sport — that keeps fans interested and the industry successful.
Despite all of that, Osaka’s situation proves that the sports world must change its priorities. Financial gain can no longer always come first; the health of athletes must be equally as important, and if refraining from participating in interviews is what their health requires, then that must be respected. The backlash Osaka has received is unjust, and she handled the situation as well as anyone could, not to mention her being only 23-years-old.
There are better ways to understand athletes than by simply asking questions directly after a game. We need better sports journalism. Understanding the emotional ebbs and flows that come with being a professional athlete should be required of every journalist covering a sport. Knowing when and when not to ask a certain question is essential to maintaining respect between athletes and the media.
Next, it’s important that concrete measures are taken to give athletes time to breathe between games and subsequent press conferences or interviews. Athletes should be able to shower, change clothes, meditate or do whatever they need to cool down and enter a healthy headspace before they engage with reporters. As a result, we might find that athletes’ responses are more genuine and thorough, and less fueled by adrenaline or the desire to get the interview over with. Athletes could also be allowed a certain number of “media declines” each season in order to opt out of an interview after a tough loss or if they are going through something in their personal lives.
The bottom line is there are ways to lessen the pressure on athletes, while also maintaining the public’s ability to get to know players outside of their sport. It’s important that we collectively recognize that despite their incredible abilities, top-tier athletes can really struggle mentally. Once we do this, we can move forward in a way that is respectful of their humanity. When there is mutual respect between fans, athletes and even the media, the world of sports will only become substantially more enjoyable to watch and participate in. We all want our favorite athletes to play their best, and for that to happen, it is important that we care about them in their entirety, which means respecting them when they don’t feel healthy enough to speak publicly.
The sports world needs athletes like Naomi Osaka and Kevin Durant because they are what make sports so great. They bring excitement to their respective sports with world-class talent and endearing personalities. Normalizing mental health issues by recognizing that even our world’s best athletes struggle could set a meaningful precedent for the rest of the world, and allowing our best athletes to take a break from their expected duties for any reason — mental or otherwise — could improve the world of sports significantly. Currently, not enough is being done to aid players in their struggles, but there are ways to start making waves, and supporting Naomi Osaka through these times is a great way to begin.