The expectation that is placed on athletes - and many others in the public eye - is that they are a commodity. Naomi Osaka’s stand should help us challenge that.
Without the emotions that propel our sports stars to success, there would be nothing for us to report on. Part of the reason we idolise them and enjoy watching their triumphs--and failures--is that it makes us feel closer to them as people.
Yet so many are desperate to continually police sports stars' minds and judge them. Or even worse, contradict the feelings they tell us they're having.
Is it because that person's emotions and feelings are no longer valuable to us to use or benefit from?
Because I suspect that could be how it feels for Naomi Osaka at the moment.
For Osaka, as a 23-year-old young woman and world-famous black athlete, to come out with such honesty and open up to us about her struggles shows a lot more strength than those who seek to belittle her actions.
The mocking of athletes with mental health issues is nothing new to many of us. Throughout the years we have seen stars such as Mike Tyson, Michael Phelps, Ronda Rousey and many others discuss the struggles they are experiencing only to see them become a punchline in certain media outlets.
Instead of ridicule, we should be praising them for their contribution to a society-wide conversation that is still in its infancy. It’s also a conversation those in sport need to have before it’s too late to give someone the support they require.
Reports suggest anywhere between 25 to 35 percent of elite athletes suffer from mental health disorders, and with up-to-date data lacking it is not unrealistic to assume that has increased through the 18 months we have all been dealing with the pandemic.
Their ability and prowess on the field, courts and pitches doesn’t stop them from going through the same struggles as the rest of us.
So for the French Open to fine her $15,000 because she felt she wasn’t in a safe mental space to talk to the media suggests that they don’t care about the mental health of players as much as they proclaim to.
No one is suggesting that people should be able to break the terms of a previously agreed contract unless there are mitigating circumstances.
Osaka wasn’t declining to talk to the media because she had a dinner reservation or she wasn’t happy with how her makeup looked on camera.
Or because she’d lost and wasn’t happy with an umpire call.
She was ill.
The ailment may be different from one that we can see, but the way we treat it should be the same as any other sickness.
It was clear the decision didn’t come lightly and she made the call in order to be able to continue the form that has made her the second seed we love to watch. She knew that by removing the pressure and anxiety caused by press conferences, she would be able to compete at the tournament.
I feel that is her most important task as a professional sportsperson - to perform to the highest ability while competing within the rules.
Not to give quotes and soundbites to people like me after barely catching her breath.
As a sports journalist, I speak from a place of privilege. I get to listen and speak to some amazing athletes and managers but I’ve never enjoyed speaking to some who clearly don't want to be there.
Professionally, I couldn't think of many things worse than an interviewee who is preoccupied with questions far bigger than "how do you think you can improve on their last performance".
The expectation that is placed on athletes - and many others in the public eye - are that they are a commodity. A product for us to use however we see fit when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth.
As she said in her statement, “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.”
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
No one who is ill should feel like a distraction when they inhabit an arena where those around them can aid them in accessing the best help possible.
This is not to say that the Women’s Tennis Association or the French Open are solely responsible for Osaka, but that they have the capability to help her now that she has let us in and asked for help.
Sadly, the general conversation is also a reminder that athletes - in some sports more than others - are still often treated differently depending on their gender.
Osaka is not the first tennis player to skip a press conference and I doubt she will be the last. Yet she is the first to receive this level of vitriol and press attention for putting her own health first.
No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic skipped at least two press conferences last year - one at the Cincinnati final when he claimed he was feeling unwell and after the incident when he accidentally hit a lineswoman with a ball at the US Open.
Admittedly he got fined for both but I don’t recall seeing the level of vitriol directed at him after his health caused him to decline post-match interviews.
What is the difference?
It isn’t just sport that needs to admit we have a huge problem in the manner in which they deal with mental health, but by stepping up they could be at the forefront of creating the societal change that we so desperately need.
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