Naomi Osaka, the former No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, and the No. 2 seed at this year’s French Open, will not be partaking in any questions from the press, on or off the court. In an Instagram post released on Wednesday, May 26, Osaka stated that the press conference questions often sow doubt in her mind, spurning negative energy that affects both her mindset and her gameplay.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” the tennis star wrote. “We’re often sat there,” she continued, “and asked questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
The post was accompanied by a set of two videos. The first is a famous interview of a young Venus Williams continually asked why she is so confident she will win her next match, until her father cuts the interviewer off and reminds him that he is speaking to a 14-year-old who’s unmatched confidence should not be shaken or questioned. The second is of former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who responded to every question reporters asked him about the upcoming Super Bowl game with, “I’m here so I won’t get fined.”
“If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation, then I just gotta laugh,” Osaka’s note ended. “I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
Similarly this past month, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving was fined $35,000 for refusing to take part in postgame interviews, his second fine from the NBA since the previous $25,000 when he would not entertain media availability during training camp.
Osaka’s statement echoes that of Irving’s at the time, who responded by saying, “I pray we utilize the ‘fine money’ for the marginalized communities in need, especially seeing where our world is presently.” He pleaded with the media to “stop distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art.”
Due the competitive nature of sports, and the rivalries bred by such a match-up driven industry, press conferences for athletes are entirely different experiences than those for musicians or actors. Usually light and informative of an artist’s thought process, the questions very rarely ever drift to regrets from a poor performance or how they may improve to face their next challenge.
During BTS’s latest press conference for their single, “BUTTER,” the K-pop group was asked “what impact they wanted their new song to have on listeners?” or if they could, “reflect back on what they learned from such an impressive run in 2020?” In W Magazine earlier this month, Spanish-language singer and sensation Bad Bunny was not once asked how his performances compared to that of his peers, or if he “had any worries about the upcoming season?”. The feature was titled, “Is There Anything Bad Bunny Can’t Do?”
Compared to sports press conferences, after losing game one of the playoffs to the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James sat down to answer questions such as, “if he thought fellow-teammate Anthony Davis had to play better in order for them to win?” Or, “if a collision with Suns’ Chris Paul that hit James’ shoulder was a dangerous play?” James simply responded, “We ready for Game 2.”
Though some players may thrive off wanting to prove themselves in the face of doubt, or are driven by rivalries in the game, Osaka and Irving have illuminated that not only may this not be how everyone operates, but that they are human beings as much as they are extraordinary athletes. Even after a loss, Osaka used her press time this past year to speak for #BlackLivesMatter, naming the victims and using her platform to speak for more than just her play after a particular game. While artists and entertainers are allowed to form their own narratives for what they want their message to be in the press, athletes are more often than not asked to “keep it to sports,” and it’s usually headlines when they can’t.
Earlier this month, when Kyrie Irving sat down for an interview with The Bleacher Report to avoid another five-figure fine from the NBA, he honestly told interviewer Timothy Rapp that, “There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on in this world, and basketball’s just not the most important thing to me right now.”
Referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Irving said, “I apologize if I’m not gonna be focused on y’all’s questions. It’s just too much going on in the world for me to just be talking about basketball. I got to focus on this s**t 24/7 most of the time, but it’s just too much going on in this world not to address. It’s sad to see the s**t going on.”
Irving is one of a select few of prominent athletesto speak out in solidarity with the Palestinian people, ending the interview stating that, “I’m grateful for the opportunity, it’s a blessing—but my goal out here, my purpose is to help humanity. And I can’t sit here and not address that,” Irving continued. “There’s a lot of people losing their lives, children, a lot of babies—that’s just what I’m focused on.”
“We all say we’re human beings, and we care and we’re compassionate,” he said, “but what are you doing to help?”
[UPDATE MONDAY, MAY 31] Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the 2021 French Open citing mental health reasons, following a response from the Tennis Association. The statement, jointly signed by all four Grand Slam Tournament Chairmen, not only fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping her first press conference, but also threatened to suspend her from future tournaments should she continue to “ignore her media obligations.”
The most confusing part of the statement is that it seems to include an underlying idea, which is that this conversation could have happened as part of a press conference at the French Open. “The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams,” it read. “In order to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences… These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story.” The Association also seemingly took offense to how Osaka was essentially asking for “preferential treatment,” which would not be fair to the other players.
After withdrawing on Monday, Osaka released a second statement, saying that she has written a letter of apology to the Tournament and that she hopes to work with them to improve the mental health considerations of the players following the conclusion of the French Open. Osaka also cited the 2018 US Open, where all the focus in the press was not on how she upset Serena Williams in straight sets in the final, but that the crowd booed her.
From boos to cheers. An emotional and powerful moment for Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams at the US Open podium. (🔊⬆️) pic.twitter.com/oTg6SORjXe— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2018
Responding to Osaka’s withdraw, French Open President Gilles Moretton read a four-sentence statement to the press, expressing wishes for a “quick recovery” for Osaka, and that they hope to see her at the tournament next year. Quite hypocritically, as fans online were quick to point out, Moretton then left without taking any further questions from the press.
Speaking to The New York Post later that night, former Women’s Tennis player and ESPN broadcaster Pam Shriver said that, “They needed to be more compassionate and supportive in the situation and deal with it behind the scenes.’’
“They’ll never say it,” Shriver continued, “but I’m sure they’d like to have her back. They lost one of the superstars of the game.”
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