As soon as Naomi Osaka announced on her Instagram channel that she would be boycotting her mandatory post-match media conferences at the French Open, pointing to the detrimental impact these conferences have on her wellbeing and mental health, I mentioned to some colleagues at Thrive that I felt compelled to write something on the topic.
You see, as passionate as I am about sport itself – the actual matches and incredible physical feats we bear witness to – I am equally passionate about both the role of media in sport, and also the rights and empowerment of athletes. I often joke about how much fun I am at parties, where I am equally happy chewing people’s ears off about broadcast deals and collective bargaining as I am nominating my next Australian cricket captain or Wallabies backline.
I didn’t want to provide a quick hot take on the Osaka situation, and like many thought it was extremely likely that this situation would escalate rapidly – as it did less than 72 hours later, following the Japanese star’s decision to withdraw from the tournament: “On Sunday, Osaka won her opening match against Romania's Patricia Maria Tig in straight sets and was fined $15,000 (£10,570) for not doing post-match media. Later that day, a joint statement from Grand Slam organisers said Osaka could face expulsion from the tournament if she continued to avoid them. That led to the player announcing her withdrawal on Monday, saying she was going to "take some time away from the court now".” When mental health and wellbeing is on the agenda, we all need to respect the seriousness of the conversation, and in this instance Osaka’s health is the most critical factor. For an elite athlete to be withdrawing from one of her sport’s biggest competitions and citing wellness as the factor is a desperately sad situation, and I feel for her immensely.
I have witnessed firsthand the impact having your every move analysed by the press pack and a voracious general public can have on an athlete. It looks exceptionally hard to navigate at times, and requires an enormous amount of fortitude, support, tolerance, and bravery to manage. That being said, electing to pursue a professional career inevitably comes with an expectation that it will play out in the public sphere – so how can we help prepare athlete resilience in the face of this?
I have long implored athletes to engage with media – social (owned) channels and traditional forms alike – and do their very best to control the narrative. Avoid speaking in cliches, develop and maintain relationships with journalists and outlets (you never know when a favourable bond will impact positively in assessment of performance or behaviours), humanise yourself and find ways to add to your own/your team’s commerciality, thus profiting directly.
Positively engaging with media also provides myriad ways in which athletes can prepare for their next career, whether that’s working within the media itself or in a coaching or administrative role – displaying your knowledge and presentability while you have the platform to do so is an oft-travelled route we’ve seen reap dividends for the likes of Daisy Pearce, Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams and Sonny Bill Williams in recent years. Yes, the media aren’t always fair with players, and I understand many have been burnt and are therefore sceptical of further engagement, but it can be used to an athlete’s advantage.
So, back to Naomi Osaka, and whether her actions this week are the long-term answer for change – and the reality is that I don’t feel they are. Her own individual commercial partnerships will of course have deliverables from her end, whether that’s appearing in TVCs, promoting brands online or otherwise, and she would understand that if she doesn’t hold up her end of the bargain she won’t get paid.
“Osaka ranked No. 15 in Sportico’s recent ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Her $55.2 million included $50 million off the court from sponsors, a record for a female athlete. Only Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods earned more over the last 12 months from traditional sponsorships.”
The same applies in the case of the French Open, with its commercial partners expecting to benefit from their logos appearing behind the sports’ biggest name as she speaks about the match she’s just completed. She can afford the fines – she went into the Open initially prepared to pay the five figure fine for not appearing at the presser after each match, which could have ended up above $100,000 if she’d progressed to the latter stages of the tournament – but not all of her contemporaries can afford to do so. Any players outside the world’s top 50 who suffer similar health problems likely couldn’t take this same action, so it’s not a one size fits all approach, though she certainly has got us all talking about it.
A middle ground has to be found here, one where the power balance between journalists and players is kept 50:50. The post-match conference presents a platform for athletes to speak about whatever they want, and in hindsight may have provided Osaka with a better outlet for spelling out her concerns and challenges than an Instagram statement, but media need to be held accountable if any of them cross the line and either ask inappropriate questions in this space, or push an athlete too far as they deal with the result of their match. Perhaps having a health professional from the WTA/Grand Slam sitting alongside players, and who is able to identify high-risk moments and jump in where necessary, would be a good start? One thing that has been clearly highlighted by this situation; with the rise of social media platforms, star athletes no longer feel the need to engage traditional media.
Osaka’s press release announcing her withdrawal highlight what an awful situation this is for her and how serious her health challenges are.
"Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I want to apologise 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.
"I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
"I wrote privately to the tournament apologising and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense. I'm going to take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans."
Further reading – some good takes on the situation:
The Many Layers of the Naomi Osaka Story (Sportsfreak NZ)
Pete Fairbairn, Group Account Director (Sport), Thrive PR & Communications