In 2006, Zach Greinke almost quit baseball. Racked with social anxiety, Greinke told the media he thought, “Why am I putting myself through torture when I didn’t really want to do it? I mean, I enjoyed playing, but everything else that went with it I didn’t.”
Greinke eventually got help, found the right medication, and was able to move forward with his baseball career. At the time, Greinke was 23 years old, the same age as Naomi Osaka is now, and had just started to come to terms with his stardom and what it meant for his private life.
This week, Osaka was bullied out of the French Open, the No. 2-ranked women’s player in the world opting to skip the rest of the tournament rather than face the media after her matches. That should send a big message to the media.
This is not, of course, the first time an athlete refused to speak to the press. From Marshawn Lynch’s infamous “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” Super Bowl media day, to Kyrie Irving’s refusal to speak to the press during Nets training camp, it’s not an unfamiliar sight. In fact, Osaka even tried to head off the controversy, telling the powers that be at Roland Garros that she would not meet with the media and was willing to pay the fines imposed on her. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes (sic) mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote on her Instagram account. “Anyways, I hope the considerable amount I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
What an entirely reasonable and mature way to handle an issue. Osaka gave advance warning of what was about to happen, explained herself, and accepted the price she would have to pay for her decision.
And yes, Naomi Osaka is contractually obligated to speak to the media after matches. And yes, she agreed to it. But those of us who deal with mental health issues often agree to things that are harmful for us, and then feel that we can’t change our minds later, when we realize that what we agreed to just isn’t working for us. So on we push, taking part in things that regularly damage us, emotionally and mentally. As a society, we’ve been conditioned from childhood that mental illness is a sign of weakness and to put our own well-being last. Nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than in the toxic masculine world of sports.
Except Naomi Osaka has “fuck you” money and the courage to use it. Osaka made more than $37 million in 2020 alone, and endorses the biggest brands on the planet. She’s a new type of athlete, one that doesn’t need the media to communicate with her fans. She can do that on her own, reaching her 3.3 million combined social media followers on Twitter and Instagram. And if she has something more involved to say, she can write about it over at The Players’ Tribune.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, around 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety and depression — that’s 12 percent of the entire U.S. population. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. I’m one of those people. You might be, too. In recent years, we’ve seen athletes like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan lauded for speaking out about their struggles with mental illness.
“But what people on the outside don’t always understand is that it takes all of your strength and willpower just to exist. Just to keep on going. Battling depression, battling anxiety, battling any mental health disorder … it’s all just so unbelievably exhausting,” Love wrote in the Players’ Tribune in 2020.
Why were so many able to have compassion for Kevin Love, yet have none for Naomi Osaka?
There are a lot of people on social media who love to take part in #BellLetsTalk and congratulate celebrities who speak out about their mental health. But when an athlete actually takes steps to do something to improve their mental health, a not insignificant amount of people object, saying it’s a step too far. Yet anxiety and depression, which Osaka admitted to struggling with as she announced her withdrawal from the French Open, are not things one gets over after taking a “mental health break.” They are often life-long conditions we learn to live with and manage with a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. If you live with mental illness, you know what I’m talking about as to how hard it can be to get on the right path and how sensitive your mental health can be to sudden changes.
Imagine trying to do that while playing tennis on a world stage.
In the U.S., we require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, including mental health issues. Deciding to play in the French Open, while at the same time removing herself from what she deems a harmful environment with the media, seems like an eminently reasonable compromise and accommodation. But it wasn’t enough for Roland Garros, who put pressure on Osaka to reverse course, threatening her with expulsion from not only Paris, but other grand slams, as well.
She called their bluff and, in doing so, gave up something that is undeniably important to her and her fans. Now we don’t get to see Naomi Osaka make a run at her fifth grand slam title, and we don’t know when we’ll see her again. Osaka said she’s “taking some time away from tennis.” And just like that, women’s tennis got a whole lot less interesting.
In the face of such brutal honesty and vulnerability, is “but you promised” really the only response people can muster?
I’m not going to get into the terrible questions we’ve all seen athletes asked at press conferences — the times we’ve seen Serena Williams leave in tears, or questions asked by people who clearly don’t cover the sport regularly. You can find them easily with a Google search.
But what I will remind fans (and the media) of is that athletes don’t owe us anything, despite what too many believe. We expect athletes (particularly women and Black athletes) to “shut up and dribble,” without any regard for them as fully-formed, emotional human beings who have good days and bad days, mental ailments as well as physical ones. Envying someone else’s abilities and place in the world doesn’t give us the right to demand they give us every last fiber of themselves. Haven’t we just spent an entire pandemic telling people “it’s O.K. not to be O.K.?”
All you have to do is look at the responses to Osaka’s thread, where hundreds of people who probably couldn’t care less about post-match press conferences under other circumstances decided it was their place to lecture Osaka about her responsibilities.
Osaka’s decision is being policed in the same way Serena Williams’ words and deeds and dress and appearance have been her entire career, and it’s difficult to see it as anything other than racist and misogynist, particularly given the behavior of some of the men’s players over the last few years. Yet none of the men’s wrongs have been discussed the way Osaka’s refusal to talk to the media has. And trotting out white, male tennis players to say they disagree with her stance is ridiculous. It’s like me saying I disagree with NBA players sitting out a game because of an injury — it really doesn’t matter what I think. We’d be naive to think the racism and sexism Osaka faces as a woman of color in the exceedingly white world of tennis doesn’t contribute to her emotional health.
Most people suffering from anxiety and depression aren’t able to take off work to get our mental health under control. We have to work through it, and we often suffer because of it. Osaka tried to offer a solution that would allow her to both continue working while protecting herself, emotionally. It was roundly rejected by those who should know better.
Now, Naomi Osaka retreats from the world. The French Open is less interesting. The media still doesn’t get to speak to her. Everyone loses.