At the crux of Naomi Osaka's fight is the future of sports journalism (yes, golf too)
Tim Clayton - Corbis
For a journalist to opine on the Naomi Osaka situation at the French Open this week, that journalist should lay his cards on the table. Here are mine: To some degree, as a golf writer, I have a financial interest in athletes speaking to the media, and on that level the brinkmanship game being played here worries me. It's not unexpected, and I've long reckoned with the idea that the era of writers having access to the players they cover may be coming to an end, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating or distressing. Most of all—and putting the future of the industry aside—I find it very sad, and that's largely because I don't have the same negative opinion of journalists that so many seem to share. I love watching Naomi Osaka on the tennis court, and I believe everything she says about her mental health, but I also think she's consciously playing on the general disdain for media harbored by the American public, and that she's starting a showdown that could lead to the loss of something that fans will miss more than they expect.
The background here, for those who need it, is that Osaka released a statement before the French Open saying that she wouldn't attend any press conferences during the tournament. Part of her objection was mental health-related, but she also commented on the nature of the pressers themselves. "We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds," she wrote on Instagram, "and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."
The response from the French Open, and the other majors, was surprisingly robust, with threats of further action beyond the $15,000 fine she incurred for skipping the post-match presser after her first-round victory. Osaka responded to that by dropping out of the French Open, citing bouts of depression she'd experienced since 2018, the anxiety that press conferences provoke in her, and her desire to make things better for other players.
This is, to put it mildly, a difficult thing to write about, and the awkwardness is aggravated by the fact that many of the people who do the writing are, like me, white men. In this social media climate, where nuance is not a strong suit, the optics of that dynamic are rough; if I call into question the acts of a woman of color who just told us the mental health challenges she's dealing with, it is quite simply not a good look. And yet—there's always an "and yet"—after watching Osaka for years, and witnessing the incredible will manifest over and over, most recently in her dramatic championship run at the 2021 Australian Open, I can't help but see in this situation another serious power struggle she's determined to win. And the act of actually dropping out of the tournament is an emphatic signal to tennis' governing bodies that if they want to threaten her with any kind of punishment for refusing to engage with the media, she'll call their bluff and take this fight to the court of public opinion.
In that venue, she's clearly winning. Along with the sympathetic reactions to her mental health struggles, it's evident from reading the top comments on one of my favorite websites that even among progressive sports fans, journalists are held in low esteem, and seen as very dispensable compared to a top player vacating a grand slam. A small sampling of the most-upvoted remarks:
"The bullshit questions asked at those pressers are worthless."
"Pressers have always been dumb as f*** in any sport since forever. Same canned answers to the same stupid questions. "
"Do people actually watch post-game interviews? I mean, they’re horrible. The bland, uninspired questions followed by similar types of answers. It doesn’t seem like anyone wants to be there, and isn’t the whole point to watch the actual sport?"
In fact, I disagree, and these sound to me like people with a very limited experience of press conferences. It would be impossible to pretend, after years in golf, that there aren't lazy journalists who ask lazy questions, and in many cases top-level athletes are more interesting for what they accomplish on the field of play than what they have to say about the world. That combination occasionally makes for a lethal cliche cocktail.
But I've covered at least one sport long enough to have sat through my share of pressers, and I can tell you that when the right people are asking the questions and the right people are answering them, it's anything but boring, and anything but predictable. Those conversations can be sources of great insight, great emotion, and even great humor, and as someone who does his best to try to engage athletes in these situations—and sometimes fails—there is gold to be mined here. Put Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth on the podium, give a microphone to someone halfway intelligent, and you will hear a fascinating exchange. I don't cover tennis, but I'm a die-hard Rafa Nadal fan, and I make a habit of watching all his pressers at majors. Like many other players, both good and great, Nadal has one or two gems to dispense every time. (And as someone who has pitied many journalists for asking bad questions and suffering immediate blowback from athletes and coaches, the way Nadal treats even the blunderers with respect, except perhaps in the most egregious cases, deepens my admiration of him.)
Yes, all of this takes wading through the dreck, through bad questions directed at athletes either too bland or too polished to crack, but imperfection exists in any walk of life. I have read too many great pieces based on journalists' interviews with athletes (and have tried to write some myself) to succumb to the facile view that it's all useless. In fact, I think that if and when the institution disappears, there will be something very valuable lost. That something can best be described as the truth that emerges when someone smart and independent seeks to get at the soul of a high-profile star who may go to great lengths to keep that soul hidden.
Do athletes owe us this slice of themselves? I think so; they are public figures who are part and parcel of a profitable entertainment machine, bound to participate in its promotion. More than that, I think they should want to do it, even when it's a slog, for the way it humanizes them. Some will struggle, and perhaps some dispensation should be made for those struggles, but let's not pretend that we're not standing at the top of a slippery slope.
The crux of what Naomi Osaka is trying to do, even inadvertently, is to deepen the growing divide between journalists and athletes. I don't doubt for a second her good intentions, but if this battle is decided in her favor, the future we're looking at is one of managed social media accounts, faux-independent puff pieces, and the short, truly vacuous post-match interviews you see on television. I can promise you this will make for a less interesting, less genuine sports world. So if writers like me seem nervous about this decisive moment, or come off as dismissive in unattractive ways to a player who is trying to protect her mental health, that's why. Deep down, most of us believe that we're well on the road to journalistic dystopia, but Osaka's fight is threatening to undo it all much faster.
Of course, a journalist asking for sympathy from the average sports fan is not bound to go very well, especially in a fraught case like this. Maybe it's not worth the effort at all, and maybe this is the written equivalent of pushing water uphill with a rake. If that's the case, so be it; keeping our mouths shut isn't a strong suit, particularly when someone is trying to shut them for us.