Naomi Osaka, Sports, Entertainment, and the Press

Last week, Naomi Osaka, the current #2 tennis player on the WTA tour, announced that she would not be engaging with the press at all during this year’s French Open. When she followed through after her first round win, the tournament fined her $15,000 and said that the penalty will escalate with each match, possibly resulting in expulsion from the Open. The other Grand Slams came together with the French and agreed that they won’t tolerate one of their competitors not talking to the press. Osaka responded by withdrawing from the tournament.

I don’t know what to think about this. I seem to be holding like six contradictory opinions simultaneously. I’m hoping that I can explore a little and come to some clarity. My initial reaction was, “Who cares?” I still feel this way even though the contradiction is painfully obvious. I’m thinking and writing about it, so I guess I care at least a little bit. But I don’t know Naomi Osaka. She’s a great tennis player, I enjoy watching her matches, but that’s as far as our relationship goes. Whether she talks to the press or not doesn’t affect me at all.

It gets even more muddled from there. Every time I hear a take, I seem to think they make a great point and they’re wrong. That started with Osaka’s original statement. She cited her mental health and the adversarial nature of the press. As someone who has suffered from mental health issues and as someone who has been a caregiver for someone suffering from mental health issues, she’s right. A daily post-mortem highlighting all your mistakes and anxieties is about the worst thing you can do. You need to conserve what energy you have and open up to a trained therapist. It can be incredibly hard talking to friends and family. I can’t even imagine what it’s like trying to handle the press.

At the same time, I can’t help but be a little resentful. I and the people I care about are simply not in any kind of position to tell our employers, “In order to protect our mental health, we will decline participating in project meetings, performance reviews, and daily check-ins for the time being.” And if we did something like that, we certainly can’t afford to quit our jobs when our bosses push back. Osaka enjoys a level of autonomy and agency that’s beyond me.

There’s the same confusion when I look at the statement from the Grand Slams. At first, I think they are completely right. Press events are part of the job. They are contractual obligations. It’s actually kind of nice to see the WTA treat one of their biggest stars just like they’d treat any player. Especially after watching the NBA ignore LeBron’s breach of COVID protocols when the playoffs started.

At the same time, show a little compassion. She’s telling them she’s sick. She wants to do her job, but there is one aspect that is especially difficult for her. I’m sure she could provide a doctor’s note, if it’ll help. Special circumstances should be accommodated if possible. COVID showed us that better than anything. Unless the Grand Slams have reason to believe Osaka is lying, they should give her the benefit of the doubt.

The press, naturally, seems to have fallen into two legitimate camps, pro-Osaka and anti-Osaka. There are also those who have sexist and racist takes, but I’m going to ignore those as illegitimate. The legitimate camps basically disagree about what Osaka’s job is. Some say that her job is to play tennis and that’s it. The others say that talking to the press is part of the job. I see both sides. Personally, I don’t pay much attention to the post game interviews. That’s not why I watch. If I see the competitors play good tennis, I’m happy. But, there are those who enjoy getting to know the players and the off-the-court storylines. Professional sports are a form of entertainment. I find the sport itself entertaining, but not everyone is like me, and I’m not going to say they’re wrong.

This hasn’t helped me figure it out. I still see all sides. I feel like there must be a compromise giving the fans access without endangering the players, but I don’t know what that is. I am curious what the other players think and feel, although if Osaka has been censured this badly, it will take a lot of courage for other players to be honest. I’d also like to know if the press can be better. Tennis is just a sport after all.

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