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Naomi Osaka: What are an Athletes Responsibilities to the Press in 2021?

It has been a little over a week since Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open.  The number 2 ranked tennis player in the world withdrew from the tournament amid concerns over mental health and after refusing to speak to the media in press conferences during the tournament.  Initially, she was being fined but eventually Osaka decided not to play in the tournament.  Of course the debate has raged on between those who believe this to be integral to her job and those who feel as though her mental health should come first.  The interesting discussion in my opinion is where her responsibilities are to the sport and corporate sponsors and what the federations’ responsibilities are in developing a healthy workplace.

Firstly, I’d like to examine how this was handled by the tournament organizers. Certainly, it was far from flawless.  The move to get all of the Grand Slam tournaments to insist on Osaka’s press conference availability felt a little heavy handed, furthermore the president of the tournament made a statement and did not take questions to the press (all done without irony).  However, we have since learned that the organizers did try to reach out to Osaka in person and in writing.

Osaka’s initial statement seemed to suggest that she represented a group of tennis players who felt as though the press often behaved inappropriately (the tennis press are notorious for being bizarrely personal and often ask questions that would be considered to be far more pressing than we see in other sports.  However, it became clear that in her second statement that due to her anxiety, the idea of facing the press seemed to be a dreadful experience.  

This got me thinking. What does the athlete owe in terms of their availability? Firstly, I’ve always felt that interviewing an athlete right after a loss tends to feel almost barbaric.  There’s very little that they want to give the reporter and the questions are all centred around the inability to prevail in that moment.  In the best of circumstances, press conferences are awful. We usually get the same kind of sound bites that give very little insight and athletes are usually either just going through the motions or using the opportunity to showcase for some of their sponsors.  

I understand that meeting the press has traditionally been part of the job.  Certainly many have said a variation of “Naomi Osaka can just go up there and say nothing”.  This shows a lack of understanding in that her issue is actually going through with the press conference.  The idea of going to face the press seems to bring her an inordinate amount of pressure.  I know that the partnership between players, leagues, and sponsors are important for the infrastructure of the sport and it allows for everyone involved to prosper.  However, I can’t help shake the feeling that this, in and of itself, is an outdated concept.

I remember first hearing about a social anxiety disorder years before I would be diagnosed with it myself. Ricky Williams who was, at the time, the running back for the Miami Dolphins, would do interviews with a helmet on.  When Williams talked about the sensation of dread that would accompany having to deal with journalists I realized that I felt some of the same issues in my own life. To this day, I cannot do groceries without having my headset on. In times where my headset has died I have worn it without even playing anything through them. I learned that this was a coping device that would allow for distance, like Ricky’s helmet.  

Now, times have changed since Ricky Williams played for the Dolphins (well a lot changed short of the Dolphins still not having earned another Super Bowl).  Players are available on a variety of platforms.  Athletes can now speak to fans directly through social media apps and sites.  They no longer need to worry about being misquoted or having context obscured by journalists and can instead put their own words out.

So why do we still do the press conferences.  It remains in my best interest if athletes and coaches continue to do them, Not Sauce For Work (one of our podcasts the features Terry Tam, The Eagle at Master Control and I) take clips of press conferences and use the opportunity to make fun of the subjects as the source of our comedy on the show.  But in reality, I do think the whole exercise will be changing over time.  With the ability to speak directly, plan releases, choose what to speak about and place products, social media seems to be a better vehicle for athletes to reach fans, sell events and leagues as well as push product.  

Those who seem most upset by this are of course the journalists who’s jobs depend on speaking with athletes.  The industry is changing and they’ll need to change along with it.  Unfortunately, many members of the media are as sensitive as they are arrogant so they are reluctant to change.  However, I can’t imagine that progress will stop in order to appease members of the press.   

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