So, yes, yay, I like to talk about cute athleticwear, and there’s plenty in here. But the big story, for anyone who doesn’t follow tennis news: Star player Naomi Osaka, 23, announced prior to the French Open that she wouldn’t be doing any of her required press conferences because she finds them deleterious to her mental health and she just wants to focus on her play. She knew they’d fine her for it, and she was right, they did. I believe the Grand Slam rules demand disqualification as the next step, but we didn’t get there; she withdrew after winning her round one match, and you can read that statement on Twitter here.
Increasingly, athletes are expected to answer immediately for every aspect of their games with barely a breath to let things sink in for themselves. It’s never struck me as the value-add TV networks believe it to be — and that includes halftime interviews, many on-field post-game spots that happen in the middle of a crush, and the really egregious ones where they make the baseball player talk to them from the dugout during the game, or grab the hockey manager while his players are on the ice actively trying to win. Those drive me nuts. Rarely does an on-the-fly interview yield much other than “We are playing well/badly” and “They’re a talented team and we’ve just gotta play 60 minutes of football.” I think these discussions benefit so much from a little bit of air and space, particularly in an individual sport. Naomi Osaka never said she’d be done with press forever; to me, it read to me as a plea to reconsider the quantity of press obligations before and after matches, which are excessive. In addition to the post-match presser, now the winner talks on court after every main-stage match AND both players have to deliver sound bites in the tunnel before they start. At the very least, they could and should ease in the younger players with a more sporadic press schedule, and take seriously the impact the spotlight can have on anxiety and mental health — especially for the ones who go on those dream runs and suddenly find the world hanging on their every word.
Naturally, some people leapt to “she’s well-paid for this” and “what a brat” and “she’s just another petulant rich kid,” in particular a few reporters covering the sport. First, if you’ve seen Naomi Osaka speak after any of her wins, everything she says in the second statement tracks. She is clearly genuine, and her nerves have charm, but they are very much present. Second, if anyone wants to make the argument that athletes’ high salaries make them “products” (rather than people) and therefore we are entitled to grill them, that doesn’t hold water with tennis players because they don’t play on contracts the way, say, NFL players do; their earnings are entirely performance-dependent, match-to-match. Third, and these are in no particular order by the way, it’s not easy for a woman in any profession to admit that she’s at her breaking point, or anxious, or anything other than 100 percent mentally sound, because we are not given the grace to be any of those things. We are too often branded as hysterical, or told we must be on our periods, or that we are “the weaker sex,” somehow worth less, or indeed worthless. That’s magnified tenfold for women of color. And when she is a successful woman, “ungrateful” predictably gets added to the pile.
But above all, money can’t buy mental health. The only thing here that it can buy is the ability to make this statement and take this stand, and I applaud Osaka immensely for realizing that. Naomi has earned the ability to withdraw without fear of going broke, to risk losing a sponsor, to fight the establishment without it punching back very hard. She can, in short, stand up for herself. Not everyone can. So the fact that she both put her own mental health first and did it in a way that forced the establishment to acknowledge her concerns… that could be a huge deal for the players who don’t have her platform. Success is a megaphone. She used it, and it might even elicit real change for all of them. Let’s hope it does.