On Wednesday, Naomi Osaka took to Instagram to inform the world that she would not participate in press during the 2021 French Open at Roland Garros. Her decision to do so has made its way through the sports world and beyond bring light to a bigger conversation on athletes, media, and mental health.
Athletes spend a large portion of their lives in the spotlight and often in front of the media. You can find them answering questions before matches, after matches, and upholding a polished image of themselves day-to-day on social platforms as well. But at what point do we consider the burden it bears on their mental health?
In the middle of May, mental health awareness month, Naomi Osaka pushed us to see it from her perspective and answer that question for ourselves. These were my takeaways.
Doing media can be taxing for athletes
In an effort to bring the world into the minds of the best competitors, we may be hurting those athletes. It took a paragraph from one of the world’s most well-known for many to stop and consider just how harmful media can be to an athletes’ psyche.
In the post, Osaka said,
“We’re often sat there and asked questions that bring doubt to our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to the people that doubt me.”
Swipe to the second slide of Osaka’s post, and you see a young Venus Williams telling a reporter, “I know I can beat her.” This was in response to a question posed by the reporter about whether or not Venus could beat her competition in an upcoming match.
The reporter poked further, essentially asking why she was so confident and continued to do so until her father interrupted, coming to the defense of his 14-year-old daughter.
It’s not hard to see how problematic that interview was, but the biggest question I walk away asking is, “Why wasn’t her answer good enough the first time?” That may also be a point Naomi is trying to drive home.
With our many questions, the media has the opportunity to sow doubt, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Often a clarifying question can be laced with agendas and bias. Sometimes the clarification isn’t for clarification at all, but a to get a more “favorable” response or a different one altogether.
This can be a lot to juggle for athletes. Getting mentally prepared for their competition, building up confidence in their abilities just to be required to sit in front of people who at times can pick them and their confidence apart can be exhausting.
Media is required and maybe it shouldn’t be
Let’s keep in mind that media is more for the spectators than the athletes. We ask them to relive moments to add color to the events we’ve witnessed. We ask them to predict and project, prove and defend, but ultimately, they’re not doing that for themselves; they’re doing that for us, to bring us into their world.
Media is required, but knowing that, Naomi decided that she would much rather pay the fine. That begs the questions, if media wasn’t required, how many athletes would willingly opt to participate? How many are doing it so that they don’t get fined?
In the third slide of her post, you see Marshawn Lynch telling the media just that. ”I’m just here, so I don’t get fined.” And truly, that was why he was there. If he didn’t go, he would have been fined. But his presence did not demand that he answer questions. While frustrating for the media, that was Lynch’s way of expressing Naomi’s sentiments.
In her post, she said,
However if organizations think that they can just keep saying, “Do press or you’re gonna be fine,” and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.
It’s a cycle. Organizations need the media, media need the organizations, but we all need the athletes. If media doesn’t happen well, sports aren’t what we know them to be today. But with that said, hopefully, we can work towards a more equitable solution for all parties, the companies, media, and the athlete.
Metal health matters for all
As May, mental health awareness month, comes to a close, Naomi Osaka’s decision to forgo media for her mental health serves as a reminder that the need to prioritize mental health is not exclusive. It’s for everyone, even the world’s best athletes.
It’s easy to view athletes as larger than life and in many cases they are. But they are also humans going through the full spectrum of emotions we all go through.
As we are all encouraged to take time and space for our own sanity, athletes should be afforded these same liberties, without stigma, without punishment, and without fines. But in this case for Naomi, I hope much of her fine is used for the purposes she mentioned, to go toward a mental health charity that bring grater awareness to issues like this.