Naomi Osaka is one the best female tennis players in the world. She’s also a vocal political activist who promotes the BLM movement (including on the tennis court, where she has worn on her shoes the names of people killed by the police).
Osaka doesn’t like talking to the press after matches. When she refused to do it at the French Open, in violation of the rules, officials fined her and threatened her with further disciplinary action if she continued to refuse.
Osaka responded by withdrawing from the tournament. She said she suffers from depression and that talking to reporters is bad for her mental health.
Out of all the stressors a tennis star/political activist faces, it’s difficult to believe that answering questions from reporters ranks high. It may be that Osaka’s claims are an excuse for not doing something she considers unpleasant. But who knows?
We do know that Osaka, while ducking print media, did a post-match television interview. Television revenue enhances players’ prize money considerably. Print media does not.
For me, the issue of requiring athletes to talk to the press is a difficult one. Reporters have a job to do, but the way they do it doesn’t inspire sympathy. And quotes from athletes rarely add much to what I get out of reporters’ stories. Yet, sometimes they do.
Sports reporters can be extremely annoying. I remember some clown asking Lebron James over and over again to describe the mental state of a teammate whose blunder had just cost James’ team a big game. James’ answer, over and over again, was basically, “how the hell should I know.”
James finally walked out, and who can blame him? There’s no excuse for that kind of stupidity.
That case is not as much of an outlier as you might think. And stupidity aside, it must be incredibly aggravating to answer questions after a tough loss.
Following an excruciating playoff loss to the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas said, stupidly, that if Larry Bird were Black he wouldn’t be lionized. Thomas, normally a master of making himself look good, would never have said such a thing if he had had time to cool off before talking to reporters. It’s not even clear that Thomas believed what he said.
Did the interview give us a glimpse into the real Isaiah Thomas? Maybe, maybe not. Do we need to glimpse athletes’ personalities this deeply? Probably not.
At the same time, it’s difficult for me to sympathize with athletes who want to duck the media, especially athletes like Osaka who have injected themselves into the public policy debate. Stars like Osaka and James don’t need the media any longer. They have their own platforms. Heck, James is a tycoon.
Naturally, they want absolute control over how the public sees them off the court. But I don’t believe they are entitled to it.
So far, I’ve looked at the issue only from the perspective of the media and the athletes. We should also consider it from the perspective of the sport or, in Osaka’s case, the tournament.
Osaka may not need media-generated publicity, but the French Open can use it. If players at the tournament stop doing interviews, the French Open may receive less coverage. This might also hurt up-and-coming players who haven’t yet reached Osaka’s status.
In the end, I see doing these interviews as part of the players’ job (albeit a sometimes unpleasant part). Perhaps tennis tournaments can find ways to make the experience less unpleasant. They might also consider exempting players with genuine claims that, as a medical matter, they can’t handle the experience.
But that’s a very slippery slope, and I don’t blame the French Open for the way it handled Osaka’s case.