Osaka Episode puts Media, Sports and Celebrity on Trial

By now you have likely heard of the biggest news from the first days of the French Open this past weekend.  It was actually about no news, or rather the refusal of one of the shining stars to engage in press activities surrounding the event.

Instead of facing the media – and submitting to threats and fines – Naomi Osaka withdrew, citing depression, anxiety and fear of public speaking. She also said she did not want to become a distraction (and promptly became the main story).

The episode raises all kinds of questions.  What is an athlete’s obligation to the sport that helped make her a star (she’s the world’s highest paid female in sports)?  Should there be an exception to the rule that you must play the game (not tennis but the game of getting grilled by the press)? Do the media have an inalienable right to put athletes up against the wall at the pleasure of sports fans?

Like a bad movie, no one comes away looking good.  Many observers expressed sympathy, but as the New York Times reported:

Few of Ms. Osaka’s colleagues have shown unequivocal support for her stance.“Press and players and the tournaments comes hand in hand,” Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, said. “I think it’s very important in developing our sport, in promoting our sport.” She added that there were moments when the media did need to be more compassionate…

“Above all, it’s just really sad: for her, for the tournament, for the sport,” said Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who has seen plenty of tennis turmoil in her 50 years in the game. “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself and instead she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”

New York Times

I agree it is hard not to sympathize, Naomi Osaka is still young and is obviously suffering from some issues.

The sympathy is tempered by the fact that, while it seems she is taking a stand at great personal expense, others might not so easily be able to afford to do this.  Plus it seems a bit disingenuous to shun some media Q & A about the game, yet embrace brand endorsement deals that add to her public profile.  The Times wrote that she became a favored spokesmodel who doesn’t shy from using her platform for activism.

Another wrinkle: the newspaper reported that poor communications played a role. An agreement could have been negotiated quietly rather than the whole thing becoming a spectacle where a young champ felt as if she had no option but to unceremoniously leave the event.

Perhaps the one positive takeaway is the attention brought to mental health issues (especially in a COVID era) and the stresses that athletes face beyond competition.

What do you think? I asked the Fusion PR team. Here were some of their responses (their views and mine don’t necessarily reflect the agency’s).

I don’t think she should have to face the press.  She’s an athlete, not a public speaker.  It’s ridiculous. Plenty of athletes crave the media attention; let THEM speak to the press.

Mark

At this stage of professional sports – being a public figure comes with the turf.  She wouldn’t have had a chance at the endorsement deals without the pro career behind her – at this point though she can set the terms of her media engagements.  She’s become bigger than any one tournament.  That said, it’s probably a balancing act and she couldn’t go completely dark for too long. 

It’s like Elon Musk: there’s no shortage of press interest around him and he makes his own rules ; media won’t stop being interested.

Olga

My personal thoughts on this are that, while it does come with the territory of being a pro athlete, she is suffering. Most athletes are not like pop stars, or companies trying to build an audience. They are talented individuals who usually get thrust into the limelight and do not know how to handle it. I cannot imagine what it is like to go to work, do physical labor for hours depending on the match, and then having to get in front of a completely different audience and answer questions about your every move. It must be exhausting! I don’t think any athlete should have to speak to the press after a game. Let the ones who want to speak do so, but it should not be an obligation. 

Morgan

This whole thing reminds me of Marshawn Lynch (NFL running back, currently retired). As an NFL player, you are contractually obligated to speak to the media (or should I say “be available”). Lynch’s antics in this regard are well known…as there have been numerous times, even during the super bowl, that he would show up for press conferences only to just sit there for the minimum required amount of time and not answer any questions. The league made a lot of money fining him for this.

Brandon Marshall, another NFL player, is an advocate for mental health as he had his own issues with bi-polar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety.

Seth
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