by maddie millington-drake ~
Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam winner, is the number two female tennis player and the highest paid female athlete in the world at just 22. Her recent – and high-profile – departure from the French Open has led me to consider the expectations we place on those in the spotlight be it via sport, film, television, music or reality.
Before the start of Roland-Garros, Osaka issued a statement on social media to her fans stating she would not be partaking in any press conferences during the tournament. She wrote, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one”.
The athlete was subsequently fined $15,000 by officials after not attending the mandatory press conference following her first round win of the tournament. Other players such as Djokovic have also been fined in the past for missing press conferences, so the fine itself is not a new occurrence. However, in this instance things were taken one step further with a letter signed by all four Grand Slam tournaments stating that Osaka could be banned from future participation if she continued to miss her press obligations.
The statement mentions that the tournament tried to reach out to Osaka but had no response or collaboration. It goes on to say, “The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams” and that their main focus is to ensure all players are treated equally, which “unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.” If this is a question of equality and fairness, it would be interesting to know how other players feel about the press conferences, and when they would like them to be held. Is it really about equality if the business is dictating the timetable?
This resulted in Osaka leaving the tournament and issuing a statement regarding the reasons behind her decision. The statement outlined her struggles with depression since the 2018 U.S. Open, and her social anxiety. She stated, “I am not a natural speaker, and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”
This obviously is a bigger conversation than Osaka herself, but about mental health in athletes across sports and the expectations spectators and the businesses running these sports have – because ultimately tournaments such as Rolland-Garros are much more than the tennis itself.
It is a duty for athletes to communicate with the public and press immediately following a game. Media boost the profile and revenues of athletes as well as the sports themselves. But have we begun to expect too much?
There have of course been two camps in response to Osaka, with many hailing her bravery such as Billie Jean King, and urging her to concentrate on her mental health before returning to the game. While others feel it is her job, and that press and all the anxiety around answering difficult questions comes with the territory of being a world-class athlete. Piers Morgan described her as an ‘arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions’.
Press conferences and anxiety surrounding them is not a new concept – Ricky Williams, the NFL Running Back for the New Orleans Saints, used to take press conferences while still wearing his helmet. He was later diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
However, during 2020 there has definitely been more of a spotlight on the mental health struggles athletes have faced during their careers, the pressure of the media and the lack of support they have received. Freddie Flintoff, the ex-England cricketer, released a documentary with the BBC describing his ongoing battle with bulimia which started after his weight was scrutinised in the early days of his international career earning him the label of a ‘fat cricketer’. Michael Phelps has two DUI convictions, one following the 2004 Olympics and another when he announced he would be coming out of retirement for the 2016 Olympics. In 2020 the documentary The Weight of Gold delves into the anxiety and depression many Olympians face, something Phelps describes as an epidemic, as he states that athletes are now seen as ‘products’ rather than ‘human’.
Is Phelps right in suggesting that sportspeople have come to be seen as a commodity rather than a person who shares the same struggles, anxieties, and worries that we all do? Obviously this idea cannot solely be applied to sportspeople but musicians and celebrities of any kind.
Why must a sportsperson have an accessible personality? Andy Murray has repeatedly been described as having ‘no personality’ with one article in 2015 going as far as to say he was ‘duller than a weekend in Worthing’. Obviously extensive media coverage does come with the level of sport Murray and Osaka are playing at but can we not accept when some people aren’t naturals in front of the camera? “Yes, but it is their job”, I hear you say. But is it? Without the athletes the business of sport would not exist so should their mental health and wellbeing not be the top priority? In Osaka’s case, she is still incredibly young and it must take a long time to get used to the type of press scrutiny at the top level, whilst at the same time trying to train to maintain that level of competition. On the other hand, many athletes will of course want to build this level of personal brand, heavily relying on sponsorship and having to participate in all the media coverage that comes with it.
Going back to the original issue of talking to the press. It also led me to question whether there is a need for press questions immediately after a game or match, when a player is still sweating. I cannot say I have a particularly deep love for any team or athlete specifically but I feel that I would value someone’s reflection on a game once they have had time to digest it themselves, to consider what went wrong or right during the game, and what could be improved on. Is that in fact not more valuable for us as spectators? For individual athletes competing for themselves rather than in a team should we as spectators not respect the performance they have just ‘put on for us’.
I am not sure of the conclusion to this column, I think I am still trying to figure out where I stand on the issue, but it has definitely made me consider the expectations we place on those in the limelight, and how we view them. That they are the ultimate end product – talented, hard-working, driven, personable, engaged, kind, charismatic, humble, the list goes on. But who crafted these expectations?