Naomi Osaka: Saint or Sinner?


By Fred Varcoe

Wouldn’t it be nice to sympathize with Naomi Osaka? At least then I’d be on a bandwagon with thousands of others. People unrelated to tennis or journalism are falling over themselves to give her a figurative hug – and a free pass for everything she says.

Let’s take law professor Scott Douglas Gerber writing possibly one of the worst sports opinion pieces ever in USA Today: “It is profoundly disturbing that Naomi Osaka felt compelled to withdraw from the French Open, one of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments. It is also illegal to make her feel like she needed to withdraw. Osaka had informed tournament officials that news conferences adversely impacted her mental health, and that she would be willing to be fined for not participating in them during the tournament. … Shockingly, the president of the French Tennis Federation did not agree to Osaka’s reasonable request for an accommodation.”

Let’s get one thing very clear here: The only person who says Naomi Osaka has mental health issues is Naomi Osaka herself. Not one shred of evidence has been made public that she is suffering from ongoing mental health issues. Osaka says she has suffered long “bouts of depression” since winning her first major three years ago, but they haven’t stopped her from winning three other majors since then, including the last two. I guess she usually times her bouts of depression well. This time, apparently, not so well.

Well, what is the nature of her depression? Gerber cites French law for the disabled as the reason for the organizers of the French Open breaking the law. Is Osaka a disabled person, unable to function normally? Was she disabled as she won her first-round match at Roland Garros? Did her disability prevent her from attending the press conference? Well, we don’t know because no one knows what her disability is or how bad it is. She’s probably attended a few hundred press conferences to date, so it’s strange how she’s managed to get through them during her bouts of depression.

The worry here is that she isn’t suffering from depression. I’ve know several women with severe clinical depression. Some self-harm; one was sectioned and doped up so much, she didn’t know who I was when she came out of hospital. They usually take drugs to maintain some kind of mental equilibrium. Is Osaka taking drugs for her depression?

The problem here is people have just taken Osaka’s word as gospel. She has “depression”; she has “mental health” problems. She’s disabled. She may be depressed in the more common usage of the word. Do you know anybody who’s never been depressed? And “mental health” is such a catch-all phrase. Everybody has mental health issues; it’s part of daily living. If Osaka is confusing having a bad day with mental disabilities, she is doing seriously ill people a disservice.

She blames journalists and press conferences for her anxiety. I find this very hard to believe. I have been a tennis journalist and attended hundreds of press conferences with the top players in the world. They are generally very benign affairs and usually tennis players are treated with kid gloves. As a rule, the tennis stars give us the routine answers to routine questions and everybody goes home happy. Miserable bastards like Jim Courier would say next to nothing and get out as quickly as possible. Martina Navratilova scared the pants off most journalists as she would crucify anyone who asked a dumb question.

And this gets to another point: The players are generally protected in these press conferences. The WTA are very protective of the players and players of the stature – or insecurity – of Osaka would almost always have a manager lurking in the background to make sure their client was OK. So I don’t see where Osaka’s problems are coming from. Yes, there are dumb journalists and there are dumb questions, but as Navratilova showed, the player is, or should be, in control of the press conference, not the journalists. Don’t like a question? Ram it down the throat of the journalist. No journalist wants to be shown up as an idiot. Or don’t answer or deflect questions you don’t like. You have to wonder who is advising Osaka. She’s represented by IMG, the biggest and most powerful sports agency in the world. Her dad and her sister often hold her hand at tournaments around the world. The WTA offers advice to all players on how to deal with the media. It’s not rocket science.

It’s also strange that Osaka consciously courted the media to promote Black Lives Matter at the U.S. Open, wearing face masks bearing the names of people killed by police officers in the United States. TIME magazine reported it like this: “After winning the U.S. Open’s singles tournament on Saturday, Osaka said the masks were her way of using her platform to protest this injustice and advocate that black lives matter. Asked by a reporter after the tournament what message she wanted to send, Osaka responded: ‘Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness,’ ” So, she was saying that should be using the media for this and presumably she wasn’t anxious about doing it; she wanted to use her (media) platform. It’s also ironic that she used (social) media in Paris to announce that she didn’t want to engage with the media.

And getting back to Gerber and other Osaka apologists, she didn’t make a “reasonable request for an accommodation” regarding press conferences. She just complained about her media duties and said she wouldn’t agree to them. Effectively, she was challenging them. Not surprisingly, they challenged back. Presumably, they hadn’t been advised of Osaka’s mental health issues, so why should they believe her? She pulled back after their threat by saying: “I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.” Well, OK, that does sound like IMG doing its job. If it’s Osaka talking, it sounds like bullshit. The WTA has an eight-person Players’ Council to take on grievances from the players and as a four-time major champion and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, if Osaka had taken her grievances to the Council, they would have listened.

I could be accused of making assumptions, but not as bad as those who blithely take Osaka’s side. If she has mental problems, she should be getting advice, help and treatment from friends, family, her extensive support staff and medical professionals. She shouldn’t be heaping pressure on herself by playing tennis. She’s taking a break and that makes sense. But she dug a deep hole for herself by making her claims on social media. The issues have to be raised and debated in public. Some sympathizers are saying athletes don’t need the media because they can say what they want to say on Instagram or Twitter. Well, Osaka tried that and it blew up in her face. The reason the traditional media exists is to ask questions that social media posts don’t answer and to debate issues in public. Osaka’s Paris blowup has raised more questions and that means us journalists want more answers, not less. Time for a press conference, Naomi….

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