Naomi Osaka: The Athletes Aren’t OK
By Nick Fouriezos
Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka rocked the sports world by announcing she was pulling out of the French Open this week, and perhaps all tennis competition for the time being, while suffering from “huge waves of anxiety” and “long bouts of depression.” The decision was bound to net controversy, given that 23-year-old Osaka has become the highest-paid female athlete after earning $55 million over the past year. And it leaves professional sport organizers, athletes, fans and media with a critical question: What do athletes owe the public, and when does that become less important than what they owe themselves? Today’s Daily Dose explores that complicated dilemma and the potential solutions while keying in on the other industries where mental health is emerging as a critical challenge.
a crisis in compassion
Osaka Withdraws. The famously introverted tennis star entered the French Open saying she would not take questions from reporters. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health,” Osaka said. But when she was levied a $15,000 fine for not fulfilling her media responsibilities and warned that she could be removed from the tournament, Osaka decided to withdraw to focus on her health. A number of athletes voiced their support, from NBA star Stephen Curry and WNBA hall of famer Lisa Leslie to British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and fellow tennis star Serena Williams.
Mounting Awareness. Osaka isn’t alone. Athletes have increasingly spoken up about their health challenges, from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps revealing his suicidal thoughts to gymnast Ali Raisman coping with depression after being abused by a USA Gymnastics doctor. Earlier this year, NBA point guard Kyrie Irving sat out multiple games after announcing he was dealing with “family and personal stuff” while choking back tears in a Zoom call. The world’s top-paid cricketer, India’s Virat Kohli, spoke about struggling with depression in February. Even the planet’s biggest soccer star Lionel Messi has grappled with mental health issues. It’s clear the athletes aren’t OK. “More and more athletes are feeling like, ‘Hey, I should be allowed to be a person. Maybe I don’t have to be silent,’” says New York Presbyterian Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz. “It raises, appropriately so, the expectation that athletes should be a person with feelings, too.”
A Dehumanized Atmosphere. Irving is an apt example: He was in the news himself after a basketball fan violently threw a bottle at him in a recent playoff matchup, leading him to say sports was at a “crossroads” of “underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo.” His scary encounter joined other troubling incidents, including a fan spitting on Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and other fans making racist comments to the family of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant. Soccer has seen its fair share of hooliganism by supposed fans — most infamously in 2018, when players and staff at the Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon were assaulted by a mob of 50 people. Some experts believe such behavior is a symptom of the rise of digital sports gambling and fantasy sports that have some fans viewing athletes as commodities rather than real human beings. When dollars are at stake, “that creates a whole different set of dynamics,” Saltz says.
What About the Media? It’s easy to scapegoat the media here, and a few unforgiving journalists may partially be to blame. As The Atlantic writer Helen Lewis recently wrote, the decentralization of media and rise of platforms like Substack has incentivized personal feuds and soap opera-like dramas for some in the media. However, Osaka was quick to say that the tennis press “has always been kind to me” and that her decision was more related to her mental health than to bad behavior from specific media members. Mental disorders often emerge when a person is in their late teens or early 20s, and social anxiety, in which one often feels harshly and repetitively judged, “could be greatly exacerbated by reality playing a role, where you are being commented on all the time,” Saltz says.
what’s at stake
An Invisible Threat. It’s long been understood, by organizers and media members, that physically injured players aren’t required to talk to the press. So why not the same for mental health? Part of the challenge is stigma: Athletes who suffer from depression, anxiety and other ailments have often been labeled as “weak,” rather than acknowledged as going through an ailment as real as broken bones. According to a 2019 study, stigma was the primary reason pro athletes didn’t seek treatment for mental health issues — and it’s not a small problem, given that 1 in 3 pros suffer from mental illness. “We’re much quicker to grant somebody a pass if they have a physical injury. I think there needs to be more of a recognition that mental injuries are just as serious,” says Bill Eichenberger, executive director of Associated Press Sports Editors, which includes hundreds of journalists among its members.
Lack of Access. Some of the conflict between media and athletes is due to the increasing distances between the two. As Eichenberger points out, access to athletes has become increasingly limited as sports have become billion dollar businesses in recent decades. While previously, it wasn’t uncommon for reporters to have the cellphone numbers of the athletes they covered, or to frequent some of the same bars or restaurants, the rise of professional PR handlers and increased scrutiny has created a divide. The athletes “don’t really get to know you,” Eichenberger tells OZY. That distant relationship can sometimes lead to distrust on both sides, he says, suggesting that maybe the answer shouldn’t be to further reduce interactions. “From a journalism standpoint, this is a dangerous precedent to set: access is so limited already.”
Why the Middle Man? Athletes who received negative media coverage used to put up with it because there were few other options to get their message out. But that calculus has changed with the rise of athlete-led media organizations, such as the popular essay site The Players’ Tribune, and direct communication methods, such as Twitter and Instagram. Players don’t need reporters nearly as much to build their personal brands, and thus are more likely to chafe at criticism. But that can be problematic for fans. “Athletes aren’t objective observers of themselves,” Eichenberger says. “That’s what would get lost if we just let athletes comment on themselves: any kind of nuanced, objective, smart assessment of their play would be hurt by not having any access to them.”
Need for Attention. While athletes may be able to speak directly to their fans, sports leagues intuitively understand that media outlets are critical to their broader popularity — especially as cord-cutting and online entertainment have diminished their prospective audiences. That’s partly why the leaders of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments initially warned Osaka on Sunday that she could face suspension before promising on Monday to address players’ concerns about mental health once it became clear that public opinion was turning against them. That argument was typified by the retired tennis star Billie Jean King, who first tweeted that athletes had a responsibility to speak to the press: “There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today.” Once Osaka revealed her depression, King tweeted again, praising it as “incredibly brave.” Still, league officials’ tone deaf response suggests that many are “still treating mental health like the stepchild of health,” Saltz says. “It’s just this complete lack of understanding.”
what can be done?
Doctor’s Notes? Athletes who can provide a doctor’s note acknowledging their mental health issues could be allowed to forgo media responsibilities — as they would with a doctor-recognized physical injury. Even Eichenberger, a proponent for greater access to athletes, believes sports persons should be trusted when they say they are facing mental health difficulties: “We’re expecting them to be fully formed human beings,” he says. But trust can always be misused. “Can we go with the presumption that our star athletes are not sociopathic liars who are making things up to help them cheat?” Saltz asks.
More Icebreaking Events. Reporters don’t want to seem too chummy with the athletes they cover … but with trust between both parties at a low, would it be so bad to throw an industry retreat? Giving athletes and journalists a chance to get to know each other with an off-record weekend might help ease some of the conflicts that have become all too common. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Adrian Wojnarowski going river tubing with Russell Westbrook? While that may seem unlikely, the pandemic has led to reporters getting more creative than ever to find stories … although they could face even more challenges if access remains limited.
Eliminate Required Availability. For every athlete who doesn’t want to speak, a number of others do. Perhaps getting rid of the requirement to speak to the press would spark more earnest conversations between athletes and the public. Most of these required press conferences are already of low value, Eichenberger says: “A lot of the questions are kind of softball questions.” Maybe giving up the ruse that rigorous journalism is possible in the scrum of a presser would allow athletes who do want the opportunity to embrace it, as Mike Florio argues for NBC Sports. However, Florio says coaches should still be required to speak, and locker rooms should remain open to the press to capture “raw, real-time reactions” from those who do speak.
other unforgiving limelights.
Comedy. Call it a tale of two comedians. Consider the different ways that Colin Jost, the baby-faced host of “Weekend Update,” and his Saturday Night Live co-star Pete Davidson, have been treated in the press. Jost is routinely adulated for his (literally) star-crossed relationship with his wife Scarlett Johansseon, while Davidson is treated like a bad boy pariah while dealing with legitimate mental health concerns. Both are victims of intense and intrusive attention from the entertainment paparazzi. Countless comedians, famous or not, struggle with depression, but the silent struggles behind their loud laughs have drawn more scrutiny since the shocking suicide of Robin Williams in 2014.
Music. Just 17 when she broke through in 2019 with her debut album, Billie Eilish has been subject to intense sexism throughout her career, as press outlets fixated on her atypical wardrobe choices — first, her propensity for wearing baggy clothing, and then, in May, her choice to wear lingerie for a British Vogue cover. The “amazing” but “scary” reaction to the latter shoot “just makes me never want to post again,” Eilish, who has spoken about dealing with Tourette syndrome and body dysmorphia, told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. In February, The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears led to a reckoning among (some) media and entertainment professionals about their treatment — sometimes horrendously cruel — of Spears as she dealt with mental illness. Will this generation avoid those mistakes with the next rising stars, such as recently ascendant teen rocker Olivia Rodrigo?
Influencers. Sure, some find it hard to sympathize with “influencers” who profit from posting Instagram pics or TikTok videos. But with that wealth, they often come under an intensifying spotlight, as recent events have shown. Tess Holliday, who earned millions of followers while celebrating her plus-sized figure, was savaged online after she revealed she suffered from anorexia despite reportedly weighing over 330 pounds (her fans felt betrayed, believing she was faking the disorder for clout). VanLife influencer Lee MacMillan died from suicide in March, with her family posting a statement afterward asking that followers not fixate on the seemingly perfect lives often presented on social media: “Don’t believe what you see online.” And a number of influencers are choosing to log off, saying the intense online praise and criticism has become dangerous to their mental health.
Media. Journalists aren’t the enemy of athletes like Osaka who are struggling with their health. In fact, many of them are also facing major anxiety in a shrinking profession that nonetheless requires more hours due to the internet age’s introduction of the 24-hour newsroom. Noted freelance journalist Yashar Ali posted Monday night about sleeping each night with suicidal thoughts, while a number of reporters have admitted to dealing with intense trauma while covering the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps vulnerable media members and athletes can work together to create a healthier environment for all.