Updated: Mar 31
Osaka’s ‘best thing’ puts mental health in the spotlight. Twitter has been buzzing with supports and spurns since Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from French Opens citing mental health reasons. Even though this is current trending news, there are such cases even in the past with Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Sachin Tendulkar, and many more.
Osaka’s act of withdrawal has sent a message of prioritizing mental health over wealth and fame across the world. Such an eye-opener to happen during the final days of Mental Health Awareness Month makes it even more timely. I would like to study this case to understand the root causes to be addressed.
The Trending Story:
Osaka, World No. 2 in Tennis and a four-time winner of Grand Slam championship, was in limelight in 2018 after she defeated Serena Williams in the U.S.Opens. The recent spark of incidents began when Osaka refused to attend the post-match news conference on Sunday after her victory against Patricia Maria Tig. She said, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media”. The French Tennis Federation levied a fine of $15,000 for breaking the 'contractual media obligations'. She was also warned that further avoidance of media might lead to disqualification or even suspension from the Tour. Following this, Osaka herself withdrew from the Opens, which she says was 'the best thing' to do.
Can media be held wholly responsible for Osaka’s withdrawal?
One couldn’t assure that.
The official Roland Garros’ tweet (now deleted), and few other comments over the web summarized that facing the media is simply part of the job as an athlete.
"Without the press", said Rafael Nadal, "without the people who normally travel, who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We (aren’t) going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?"
“It’s the largely exultant and celebratory media coverage that’s made Naomi Osaka a fabulously rich superstar — and allowed her to be a high-profile social issue activist too, using the media to promote her support for organizations like Black Lives Matter,” wrote Piers Morgan.
Questions cannot be restrained; media exist for raising questions. A large share of sports revenue is from media interactions and every elite athlete is obliged to partake in it.
Osaka wrote in her social media statement “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. We’ve often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubts into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me”.
An estimated one-third of athletes at some point in their career suffer from a mental-health crisis that manifests as depression and anxiety, eating disorders, and burnout, according to studies cited by academics and the International Olympic Committee.
Besides the usual anxiety and responsibilities that the athletes are weighed upon, in sports like tennis the journey through each season is very lonely or limited to a very few people like a coach, physiotherapist, and/or a partner. Adding the current situation of bio bubbles makes it no more a pretty environment to enjoy the sport.
Here are few points to ponder upon:
1. Part of the job
Yes, it’s a part of the job whose rules were drafted generations ago.
Is it tough to attend a press conference after a physically and emotionally draining match? Maybe.
But while most of them are doing it, should everyone do it? No.
Few athletes might be immune to any obligations posed but few might be affected emotionally. The one size fits all approach should not be fit into the framework anymore. A fluid approach that provides athletes the flexibility to handle press conferences and public appearances is needed.
A look deeper into the situation unravels that the real problem here is not Osaka or the media. Rather, it’s the press conference itself. Press conferences were considered to be extended sports fans' representatives. The modern press conference might be a weird idea, and that essentially fails at its central function. The greatest pride of the press conference is that it is basically a direct line from the athlete to the public at large. But it's time we realize that with the current pace of reaching out to the fans at large through social media channels, athletes now have their own direct line to the public.
It might be hard to digest but Osaka’s job as a performer and corporate billboard depends on her playing tennis at an appointed hour, rather than being forced to sit in a room explaining herself to strangers. The sponsored promotions can always be handled through social media channels personally or by the managers.
Ask a sports fan if they want their favorite athlete to attend press conferences knowing that it might affect their performance on the field?
Almost everyone would say No.
2. The bias towards mental health
Had Naomi cited physical illness for refusing the media, she wouldn’t have faced the ire of the Federation.
This shows the depth of stigma held against mental health. The modern press conferences are no longer a meaningful exchange but often a game to mine as much content from the athlete as possible. Meanwhile the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is 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.
Athletes are often viewed by fans as an embodiment of joy and hope. They give their very best while training and sacrifice a lot starting from their favorite food to spending time with loved ones to achieve their dreams. It is important to remember that elite athletes are also humans first and that their mental health is just as important as their physical health. Like us all, they may also find themselves in need of mental health support. Prioritizing mental health over victory and loss, assets and liabilities, TRP ratings, number of views of disheartening press conferences, is the need of the hour
The irony is that after Osaka’s withdrawal, the French Tennis Federation president, Gilles Morreton called it an unfortunate incident before stating the mental health reasons and left without answering any questions from the media.
3. Stakeholder Responsibilities
Authorities: With finances and stardom in reign, mental health has been marginalized over the years. Mental health isn’t an issue confined to professions of renowned and celebrities but is a critical point in every profession and career in the world. Handling responsibilities can make one anxious and stressed. But not everyone gets a choice to withdraw like Osaka. Rule books, contracts might bind the athletes to dictate what has to be done and at which moment. But it's time to re-evaluate the policies, frameworks, and terms and conditions.
Media: These days, athletes are being trained to address press conferences from a very junior level. But is the same being done with the journalists? Are they trained to understand the nuances of the emotional status of an athlete after an exhausting match and question with empathy? Compared to the client feedback jokes that every corporate professional understands, it is even hard for an athlete to face critical feedback face-to-face and respond pleasantly without hurting anyone else’s feelings while still figuring out what happened during the match.
Taking a mental break from career/work often equals loss of livelihood, which is discouraging many from paying proper attention to their mental health. They let their mental health be ground to dust to fulfill their physical needs. However, taking a stride for mental well-being by those in authority is capable of a sea of change. Unlike the FTF which threatened expulsion and imposed a fine, the authorities could empathize and be concerned about the athlete’s health as much as they are about their physical performance.
It’s high time to normalize mental health just as one would physical health. Osaka has reignited the torch and it’s on us to follow, for a world of healthy minds.
For an industry built on the emotions, sentiments, unpredictability, the highs and lows of performance, the victory, and loss of the athletes, the sportive spirit on and off the field, and celebration of sport as an embodiment of the human spirit, the policies are ironically biased and the emotional and mental wellbeing should be on equal stands as that of physical wellbeing and the industry is to be built around it.