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Padding the Stats: On Naomi Osaka, Anxiety and Athlete-Media Relationships

June 02, 2021

Last week, tennis star Naomi Osaka made waves when she posted a message on Twitter saying she would not participate in any post-match press conferences at the French Open, citing a desire to take care of her own mental health.

Osaka said she was willing to pay whatever fines were going to be levied against her in order to avoid speaking after matches. Sure enough, after her first-round win over Patricia Maria Tig, Osaka received a $15,000 fine and the organizers of the four grand slam tournaments issued a statement warning of future penalties for continuing to brush off media obligations, including potential expulsion from the tournament and future grand slam suspensions.

So Osaka took things into her own hands and withdrew from the tournament on Monday, posting another lengthy message on Twitter that offered more insight into what she was dealing with and why she made the decision she did.

I’ll be honest, I was conflicted when I saw Osaka’s first message. I’m obviously a member of the media myself and I rely heavily on press conferences to do my job.

In order for sports writers to properly relay what happened during a competition and provide a full picture for fans, we need input from the participants themselves. Personally, I prefer to let the athletes and coaches tell the story within my recap as much as possible — anybody who reads my stuff knows my stories tend to be pretty quote-heavy.

Media obligations are part of a professional athlete’s job. Every section of the sports industry — the athletes themselves, the writers, the broadcast companies, the sports talk radio hosts, etc. — work together to create this world where athletes can be incredibly well-compensated for excelling at their craft thanks to fan interest, which is in part driven by the access to the athletes and the sports provided by the media.

Today, athletes have more and more avenues to reach out and interact with fans directly, but the traditional media is still an important part of the sports industry. Ultimately, athletes would be doing their fans a disservice if they just decided they weren’t going to speak to the media any more.

That being said, the good of the industry should not reign supreme over the needs of its people. Osaka did not owe us a deeper explanation about the ways in which she is struggling and how press conferences specifically trigger those struggles, but she gave it to us anyway and for that I applaud her courage.

Depression is a serious problem that many people deal with on a daily basis. It can come for any of us at any time, no matter how talented or successful we are. Money doesn’t spare you from the disease’s grasp no matter how much of it you may have. Personally, I haven’t had to deal with any symptoms of depression; I’ve been lucky. That doesn’t mean those close to me have likewise been spared, however.

The other issue Osaka spoke about, however, is something I’m far too familiar with: social anxiety. That is why she’s struggling so much with press conferences, as benign as most of them may be.

I’ve dealt with social anxiety most of my life. Osaka described herself as an introvert, and I would do the same — which is sometimes a struggle considering so much of my job is dealing with people. As important as they are to what I do, I also feel anxiety about press conferences myself, and even one-on-one interviews. I oftentimes struggle to come up with questions I feel comfortable asking off the top of my head in the moment and usually write out what I want to ask beforehand just so I have a script to go off of. There are times where I’ll sit in on a press conference and never muster up the courage to ask a single question. I can imagine how much worse the anxiety would be if I was the one getting grilled, especially after a difficult loss.

I have a weekly radio spot in Omaha on the Gary Sharp Show on 1620 the Zone, and after a couple years I still I feel nervous every time I’m sitting there on the phone waiting for the break to end and my interview to start. More often than not, I think back on my answers at the end of the interview and hate half of them, even as prepared as I try to be heading in.

So I can totally understand where Osaka is coming from, and I empathize with her. She needs to take care of herself; the rest of us can wait. I say that as both a tennis fan and a sports writer.

That being said, I wish there was a different way this all could have gone down. The way the tournament officials handled it was embarrassing, right down to French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton refusing to take questions after issuing a statement regarding… Osaka’s refusal to answer questions. I wish there was a way the Roland Garros officials could have worked out some way for Osaka to compete and still offer her thoughts in some way after the game (whether it be a one-on-one interview, Osaka providing post-match statements on her own, or something else that would both spare her the mental turmoil while also providing the media with the insight they need).

Instead of getting up in arms about an athlete speaking about the difficulty of press conferences and treating it as an affront to sports writers everywhere, we as an industry should take Osaka’s words to heart and try to learn from them. How can we be better to the athletes we cover? How can we continue to foster the kind of working relationships with these athletes that they don’t see press conferences as something to dread? How can the traditional press conference evolve to be more accommodating to athletes while still serving their purpose?

This extends far beyond the media as well. The recent fan antics at NBA playoff games where people have spat on, dumped popcorn on and thrown a water bottle at players (among other incidents) just shows many people don’t see the athletes for the human beings they are. That absolutely needs to change.

I truly hope that Naomi Osaka can find happiness and balance in her life, and I hope some day she can get to a good place where speaking with the media isn’t such a struggle for her. She is a phenomenal tennis player and a joy to watch, and I’ve enjoyed the glimpses into her personality we’ve gotten from the postgame interviews she has done. She has millions of people around the world rooting for her, and they’ll still be out there ready to cheer whenever she returns to the court.

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