On the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month, tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would be withdrawing from the French Open. Earlier in the week, she had announced that she would not be partaking in the customary after-match press conference to protect her mental health. She was transparent as she shared that she has dealt with depression and suffers from anxiety around public-speaking. She knew that she would be fined and asked that her fine go to an organization working with mental health issues. The French Tennis Federation did fine her $15,000 for not fulfilling her contractual obligation to speak to the press.
Press conferences have historically been one of the only ways for the press and the public to hear directly from an athlete. But with the rise of social media, organizations can find different ways to give athletes a voice. It is no longer necessary to force them to partake in these events if they are that uncomfortable. Naomi Osaka is hardly the first athlete who has noted how infuriating press conferences can be. Marhsawn Lynch famously went to a press conference, answered no questions, and responded “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.” Many times, the questions are intrusive, and downright disrespectful. So, the real question is not should athletes be forced to partake in these press conferences, but is it even necessary?
Do the press and the fans deserve to have total access to an athlete? The answer to that question is obviously no. They are there to do a job, and the job has been completed. Why do we believe that our jobs should have complete and total access to us? How many of us work from sun-up until sun-down jeopardizing our health and well-being because this is our livelihood, only to find ourselves exhausted and burnt-out beyond recognition? In our over-worked, internet driven world the concept of stepping back is ground-breaking or abstract; it should be the norm. What Naomi Osaka did was not just reveal her truth, but it was also a cry for help. Not just for her, but for other athletes as well. This is the time for the sports world to ask themselves how are they protecting their athletes, and what can they change moving forward?
At the tender age of 23, Naomi Osaka is a four-time major champion and was the Number 2 seed at the French Open. And while she might excel in a sport that she loves, it doesn’t give anyone the right to destroy her peace and mental health for profit. She is stronger than many people who are older than her and has announced that will be taking a break from tennis to focus on herself. I wish her a time full of healing and renewal and hope that this starts a larger conversation. We could all learn something from this young woman.