Opinion: Naomi Osaka has sparked a mental health conversation. Are we willing to have it?
Once again, sports has taken us to a national and international conversation that we as a society otherwise most likely would have ignored. Just 23, Naomi Osaka, already the highest-paid female athlete in sports history, posted news Monday of her struggles with long bouts of depression and anxiety since she won her first Grand Slam tennis title at the U.S. Open in 2018. She withdrew from the French Open and left us with this parting line: “love you guys I’ll see you when I see you.”
So this prodigious talent and remarkable social activist, at the top of her game, has now disappeared from public view, for how long we don’t know. Let us hope she takes care of herself and gets the understanding, guidance and love she needs to return when she is ready.
Meanwhile, we are left to pick up the pieces of a week of fractured discourse. It began last Wednesday when Osaka posted on social media that she was not going to show up at the press conferences she was contractually obliged to attend at Roland Garros. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes (sic) mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
For many sentences, her focus was trained on the peril of the press conference, especially the repetitive, tough questions a top professional athlete often receives after a devastating loss. Many joined her side. But not all.
There is a reason tennis players are fined if they skip press conferences. The sports’ leaders and the players themselves have long since decided tennis needs them to promote the sport. Opportunities for free media coverage are vital for a sport like tennis, trying to hold its place in a packed sports calendar as TV ratings for almost everything on air these days continue to slip and slide.
Had Billie Jean King and her pioneering peers skipped interviews, for any reason, women’s tennis wouldn’t be what it is today. Times have changed and so have our sensibilities. But women’s sports in particular still are in desperate need of attention and coverage.
So, is it possible to be extremely concerned for Osaka's well-being and also understand that there’s a very good reason for the players’ media accessibility rules, and that those rules need to be followed?
Take a look at Twitter and you’ll say no, it’s impossible, this conversation is not nuanced, there can be no middle ground.
But then listen to retired tennis player James Blake on CNN Tuesday. After expressing heartfelt concern for Osaka, hoping that she takes care of herself and that her courage in speaking out perhaps leads to having a mental health expert on site every week on the tours, Blake said this:
“I think the French Open and all the Grand Slams’ response was kind of what they had to do. They had to make this an extremely strict penalty where they can’t let this become a pattern. And I understand that from their side, because if this becomes a situation where anyone that can afford the fines decides, you know what, I’m just not going to do press and I’m going to have that extra hour to myself to recover, to worry about my next match, it can become an advantage.
“I just want this to be something where there can be a compromise, where this maybe is just the starting point of a conversation about what can be done to somehow meet in the middle. Because the tournaments can’t let all the top 10 players decide to not do press because that’s going to make it much less of an enticing product. The fans want to hear from the top players, what they felt in their match, how they were feeling, what they were doing, what they’re changing in their tactics, what they’ve changed in the offseason, things like that. They want to hear that. So I think the tournaments did what they had to do and now let’s figure out a way that we can get to meet somewhere in the middle.”
There is a lot of room in that middle. Should there be the possibility of occasional mental health exemptions from press conferences and other duties for players, based on the advice of medical professionals? When she’s ready, can Osaka be that person, as Olympic great Michael Phelps is in retirement, to take on the subject of mental health in her post-match interviews as well as in public service announcements and personal appearances? Thousands would hang on her every word.
As we have witnessed over the past few decades, sports leads us to conversations on difficult topics because of the fame of the athletes involved and the cross-section of people who are drawn into the discussion. The issues have been varied and difficult: domestic violence, sexual assault, police brutality, social injustice.
Now, it’s mental health. Let’s not squander this opportunity. To have this conversation, though, we have to be willing to actually converse.