We can applaud Naomi Osaka without disparaging the media

The story isn’t Naomi Osaka vs. the press.
The story isn’t Naomi Osaka vs. the press.
Image: Getty Images

Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open has sparked necessary conversation about athletes and mental health. It was so important to her that she was willing to sacrifice a potential $1.8 million in prize money to put her own peace first. That’s not the act of a so-called diva, or of someone just in a game of brinksmanship with the WTA’s media obligations.

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 This is the French Open. As one of the four Grand Slams players vie for each year, the career total of which will be a defining number, Osaka has shown what this is worth to her. She would be very aware how much one major can mean, seeing Serena Williams stalled at 23 when Margaret Court’s record is 24 career slam event wins.

So this isn’t something Osaka takes lightly, and mental health is an issue of importance beyond the sports world. But this is being pitted as Osaka vs. the press, and that’s a framing that doesn’t do justice to the issue.

In the wake of Osaka’s announcement, many have further critiqued the idea of press conferences and access, including some journalists. It isn’t a perfect method, but the free line of inquiry your average post-game offers is part of what makes sports so compelling. It’s not scripted or manicured, and it leads to moments both provocative and hilarious. 

Those organic moments can have a big impact. Think of the time Andy Murray was asked in 2017 about Sam Querrey being the first American player to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since 2009. 

“Male player,” Murray responded, thereby resetting the default gender in the tennis media. 

Before she withdrew from the French Open, Osaka first declined to do the mandatory press conferences, which once again puts that interaction in the spotlight. But really there are many pressure-filled parts of an athlete’s requirements. In some ways, the press conference is an easy scapegoat.

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When the pandemic was first beginning in the late winter of 2020, all the major sports leagues came together for one mitigation effort – barring reporters from locker rooms. It was one of the few things they came together for in the year that followed.

 Shockingly, keeping reporters out of locker rooms didn’t end the pandemic.

Osaka, at 23, wasn’t around when the women who made tennis so popular had to agitate for coverage from the sporting media in the 1970s. That coverage helped make tennis the most lucrative sport for women, without exception. Osaka made an estimated $55 million last year in part because of the tedious work of her predecessors at the podium. 

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Or as Billie Jean King put it this week: “In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today.”

Back then, it was because the Grand Slam events were co-ed that the press was already there for the men, so they might as well give cursory attention to the women. And now the WTA enjoys a level of coverage that is envied by the WNBA, the NWSL and LPGA. 

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Women have a thinner margin for error than men’s sports. American press coverage is more often personality driven, nationalistic or chasing a uniquely excellent athlete. Think of the press the LPGA got in the era of Annika Sorenstam, back when she was winning majors and playing in PGA Tour events. Now name two women in the Top 10. 

It even happened on the PGA Tour when Tiger Woods wasn’t playing, no Woods meant that golf had a much lower profile. Individual sports by their very nature put a lot of pressure on players, who don’t have the benefit of teammates to take some of the heat, or have their backs.

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When the press isn’t covering the marquee players, those reporters aren’t covering the up and comers. I remember Osaka’s pre-tournament presser at the 2018 Wimbledon. She was the unknown, and more than a few stuck around like me to hear her speak on the day Serena Williams did. Reporters were just getting to know her, and she was so deftly funny and authentic that day. A champion with a platform doesn’t lack coverage, but it’s the players who come after her who do.

I have not been to all of Osaka’s press conferences, but the ones I have attended have been almost inspired. Reporters have been curious about her and respectful, she’s not a hard player to like. People in the vilified media are just people, and Osaka has won many over, just as she’d won over fans. Tennis media is also, at least in the U.S., more balanced in terms of gender than in most other sports.

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Osaka has used the resulting platform to let the tennis community see how the Black Lives Matters movement should matter to them as well. She even got the Western & Southern Open to delay the semifinal after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin last summer.

This is bigger than a press conference.

 Athletes aren’t often allowed to have something that is more important to them than the game. Osaka makes an important point by drawing those red lines for herself. But because this is something that affects her doesn’t mean that press access needs to be cut off, or demonized.

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You would have hoped the conversations between Osaka and the WTA about what adjustments could be made would have happened well before the French began. It certainly would have been helpful if Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation that fined Osaka for not taking questions from the press, had ACTUALLY TAKEN QUESTIONS FROM THE PRESS instead of reading a statement.

The press is often a convenient foil, but we can respect Osaka’s concern for her own peace of mind without heaping blame on the messenger. This just might be a story where we can assign a hero, without ascribing a villain.