If there is anything favourable to have come out of the Covid pandemic, it is surely people’s willingness to talk about their mental health challenges.
Professional sports men and women are not exempt.
I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me, Naomi Osaka
In a move that has angered the tennis establishment, notably the WTA, the French Tennis Federation and the French Open, and caused widespread ripples of dissension around the globe, World No 2, Naomi Osaka’s decision to state that she intends to boycott post match interviews at the forthcoming French Open because journalists, “have no regard for an athlete’s mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” might, on the surface, appear to be at best baffling and at worst, hostile. Her assertion that “I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” assumes that the media does doubt her! I certainly don’t. I admire her, as do most, if not all, of my journalistic colleagues, I am sure.
French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton called her decision to boycott press conferences a “phenomenal error” and “unacceptable.”
Even her own Association, the WTA, felt prompted to respond, issuing a statement which reminded players of “their responsibility to the sport and to the fans.”
The 23 year old’s four Grand Slam titles have earned her the right to speak her mind on the big tennis issues of the day. But one might wonder whether, in considering which battles to fight, Osaka may have picked one she is unlikely, in the long term, to win.
Leadership is not only about taking a stand; it is about taking the right stand and on reflection, Osaka may well want to consider the impact of her words on, for example, her fellow, lower ranked professionals who, unlike her, are not able to opt out of media interviews at the risk of hefty fines.
They, surely, cannot be seen to be supportive of the alienation of the very people who write about their journeys up and down the tennis rankings. Some of them will suffer ‘mental challenges’ too, but will nevertheless be required to fulfil their media obligations.
The media has its job to do and is responsible not only to the game it reports, but its readers. The game’s professional players and their fans deserve the best coverage that the media can bring. If the media is estranged from the game, it cannot bring due service to its fans.
No right thinking tennis fan – including those who make their living by writing about the sport – would doubt Osaka’s sincerity in raising the issue of mental health in the game, something that the WTA has stringent protocols in place to deal with. But why, I wonder, has it been raised on the eve of one of tennis’ primary events?
Given that her preparations for Roland Garros this year (a tournament she has yet to go beyond round three in) include early round defeats in Madrid and Rome, she may well feel that in Paris, the media could be a ‘distraction’ she could do without. Unfortunately, her alienation of the media has now become the story, and may well work to her detriment. We shall see.
In defence of Naomi Osaka, I can say that I have attended plenty of press conferences where occasional, very occasional, asinine questions have been asked by journalists who should, perhaps, know better. But that cannot be resolved by ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.
If Naomi Osaka has a point, and she may well do with regard to the inevitable repetition of questions asked by different media outlets, it might have been more helpful if she had addressed that to the various international tennis writers’ bodies for them to respond to.
The Lawn Tennis Writers Association, for example, expects its members to adhere to the highest standards of tennis journalism. Its Committee meets regularly on Tour, seeking the betterment of the game and the way we journalists report it. Maybe Osaka’s intervention may prompt a review of sorts. No one – not even journalists – would deny any player who might be suffering from mental illness the right to question whether they are being treated fairly by the media and that includes – especially – the written press.
Similarly, the Grand Slam authorities may well wish to reconsider whether 30 minutes is a realistic post-match time frame for a player to appear before the media. It doesn’t usually work in practice, and it may help if tournaments in general were allowed more flexibility in giving players a bit more time to adjust from their exertions, both physical and emotional, before coming under media scrutiny.
But at the end of the day, if freedom of speech and scrutiny of player performance is going to prevail, then the media, the written press as well as TV and Radio, have to ask the questions they want to ask to willing players and administrators. Accountability for – and promotion of – the game is at stake. The alternative, at least for the players, is that they go down the route of promoting themselves online, through social media, to their own fan bases. How disastrous that would be for the game.