Naomi Osaka is one of the most prominent young stars in tennis and the highest paid female athlete in the world. Despite the misbelief that certain people, particularly wealthy and successful ones, are immune to mental health struggles, Osaka revealed she has been living with depression.
To protect her mental health, Osaka announced last week she would not “do any press” during the French Open. She was fined $15,000, threatened with harsher penalties and eventually withdrew from the tournament.
Fingers have been pointed in nearly every direction. Many elite athletes and sports journalists have weighed in on her decision, some more sympathetic than others.
Some argue Osaka should have been upfront about her depression and gone directly to French Open officials rather than announce her decision on social media. Others have said tennis officials should have kept their views private, so not to create more media attention for an athlete who has said she is struggling with media scrutiny. Others argue the media should be held accountable. Sports journalist Julie DiCaro told NPR the media was somewhat culpable and could stand to make space for athletes of color to question the merits of rules that take a greater toll on them than on their white counterparts.
For all the story’s complexities, and for all the public still does not know about Osaka’s health and the communication between her and tennis officials, psychologists say Osaka should be lauded for speaking openly about her mental health in a culture still skeptical of wounds it cannot see, for asserting boundaries to keep herself safe even at cost to her career, and for challenging her sport, the media and the public to rethink what we demand of athletes.
“So much of the world has been set up that this is the way we do it, and this is the way we’ve always done it, and it’s going to work this way,” said Lynn Bufka, a senior director at the American Psychological Association.
“Anytime somebody questions it, whether it’s interviewing athletes if they win or lose, or always asking them questions even if they’re struggling … there’s a threat here that we may have to do things differently, even if in the end it might ultimately serve to be a better way.”
Candice Williams, an athletic counselor at Ohio State University, said the controversy underscores the tension between a player’s obligation to their sport and their obligation to themselves.
“People take a very one-dimensional view of athletes. They look at them as performers, and not as people,” she said. “It shows that we have more work to do in terms of normalizing that a person can be mentally not OK, and still be functioning, and also want to carve out time for themselves. I commend her for setting that boundary.”
Mental health myths fuel outrage
Bufka said the outrage over Osaka’s decision shows the public is still grappling with whether we can accept people can be competitive professionals and still have valid mental health concerns.
A reply on Osaka’s Twitter announcement read, “You do have one of the very best jobs in the whole world to be able to swing a racket at a ball professionally. Makes me think that you should sit down to answer questions no matter win or lose, it’s a minuscule part of your job.”
Osaka has been commended for handling press conferences gracefully, but that says nothing about what’s happening with her internally.
“At some point we start to see these athletes as untouchable. We think, ‘Who are they to have any type of mental health issues? Naomi should be OK with speaking to the media.’ But you have to understand that burnout is real for athletes too,” Williams said.
Bufka and Williams both said if Osaka had revealed a physical injury was keeping her from participating in press conferences, the reaction would have been different.
“If she were dealing with an ACL tear, or an ankle sprain, or she hurt her wrist, or her elbow, or her shoulder, we would not have this push-and-pull of, ‘Is this real, or is this fake?'” Williams added.
Different athletes, different needs
Some journalists suggested Osaka’s refusal to answer what she knew would be difficult questions about her struggle to win on the French Open’s clay courts was a sign of weakness. New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey wrote, “if Osaka is sensitive to questions about her weaknesses on clay, imagine how Pete Sampras felt when he was asked about his own failings for more than a decade as he tried and failed to win Roland Garros.”
But mental health experts note there are many factors that affect how someone responds to pressure, including age, personality and in this case the media environment. Racial and gender identity can also impact the questions asked.
The opening question to 17-year-old Coco Gauff during a press conference at the 2021 French Open: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American too.”
Osaka is only 23 years old. She said she is an introvert and struggles with anxiety when speaking in public. She is a woman of color in a sport that remains predominantly white. She is answering questions in a media environment where a controversial comment, emotional breakdown or poorly-worded response can explode on social media and take on a life of its own.
‘Can we do this differently?’
In her social media post announcing her withdrawal, Osaka called some of the rules on press demands “outdated.”
She said: “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
Post-game press conferences are often viewed as mutually beneficial for journalists and athletes. Speaking on the Osaka controversy during the pre-tournament media day, Rafael Nadal said: “I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, without the press … probably we will not be the athletes that we are today.”
Those vulnerable moments after a win or a loss are precious to reporters who strive to understand their subjects, and while Osaka noted “the tennis press has always been kind to me,” she still said speaking to the media gave her “huge waves of anxiety.”
If an athlete is saying part of the job is too much for them, mental health experts say we are obligated to listen, to make space and to imagine a different way.
“(With the media) it’s, ‘Hey, we want in real time, your reaction, right after this experience that you had,’ not understanding that she’s a human being, and processing information, and processing feelings, aren’t just things that happen in an instant,” Williams said. “I think we are a culture where we want to know things instantaneously. Is there a way that we can mitigate that in terms of being able to meet the athlete where they are when they have to do press? I absolutely think so.”
Experts say this moment is an opportunity to think about our expectations for athletes, and how we can help them be successful not only in their sports but in their lives.
“I really appreciate her trying to say, ‘here’s what I need, here’s what works and doesn’t work for me,'” Bufka said. “Can we do this differently? How do we do this? I hope we can accept that there’s something legit here, rather than trying to force people to prove their mental health issue beyond a shadow of a doubt.”