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Sports >  International sports

Commentary: No question, female athletes deserve better

UPDATED: Tue., June 1, 2021

Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig in a first-round match at the French Open on Sunday in Paris.  (Christophe Ena)
Japan’s Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig in a first-round match at the French Open on Sunday in Paris. (Christophe Ena)
By Monica Hesse Washington Post

What I know about tennis as a sport couldn’t fill a water bottle. It enters my consciousness only via headlines, as it did this week when Naomi Osaka, currently the highest-paid female athlete in the world, announced that she would withdraw from the French Open. She cited preservation of her mental health, the same explanation she’d provided a day earlier when she publicly declined to participate in tournament-related news conferences.

“Diva behavior,” declared the lead sportswriter of the Telegraph, following the news-conference revelation. “World sport’s most petulant little madam,” decreed Piers Morgan, taking a break from his bizarre Meghan Markle fixation to harass another young woman of color.

So from my limited, headline-osmosis understanding of the sport, here’s what I have discerned: Damned if you’re Naomi Osaka refusing to participate in a news conference. Damned if you’re Naomi Osaka three years ago, agreeing to participate in a news conference, and then fully half of the questions are about your opponent’s behavior – Osaka bested Serena Williams in a controversial match – and you end up apologizing for winning.

Damned if you’re Serena Williams, asked on the spot to publicly translate your anger into a “teachable moment” for your daughter. Damned if you’re Maria Sharapova being informed at age 17: “You’re a pinup now, especially in England. Is that good? Do you enjoy that?” Damned if you’re Serena Williams having once competed against Maria Sharapova, and a reporter approaches you at the French Open in 2018 with a question he says he’s “been waiting about 14 years” to ask, and the question is whether, more than a decade ago, Williams was “intimidated” by Sharapova’s “supermodel good looks.”

Damned if you’re Eugenie Bouchard, who in 2015, while still on the court at the Australian Open after obliterating her latest opponent, was cheerfully asked by a television journalist, “Can you give us a twirl and show us your outfit?”

“A twirl?” repeated the seventh-ranked female player in the world.

“A twirl, like a pirouette – here you go.”

Bouchard did, and then she buried her head in her hands in embarrassment.

On Monday, Osaka didn’t describe her mental state in detail, nor should she have to. In a statement, she said she had suffered “bouts of depression” since the U.S. Open in 2018, and that skipping news conferences was a way of avoiding the “huge waves of anxiety” she experiences while speaking in public.

The events have prompted discussions about mental health in physical sports, about what athletes owe us and what we owe them: Do their jobs end on the court/field/pitch, or do their jobs necessarily involve sitting in front of a Hydra of microphones?

The other piece of the discussion is why a female athlete, and particularly a Black or Brown female athlete, might avoid news conferences, where they are often treated so damnably. (See: runner Caster Semenya, asked repeatedly in news conferences to account for the most private details of her physique and biology).

A 2016 Cambridge University Press study analyzed the language used to describe male and female athletes in the media. The most common words used for men but not women: “fastest,” “strong,” “big,” “great.” The most common words used for women but not men: “unmarried,” “married,” “pregnant,” “aged.”

Male athletes get to be athletes. Female athletes get to be petulant little madams, and for pity’s sake let’s all hope that Piers Morgan never learns of John McEnroe.

Hollywood and politics have been dealing with the issue of the problematic news conference for years. The hashtag #AskHerMore was born from the exhaustion of women who longed to be quizzed on anything besides whom they were wearing or whom they were sleeping with.

(And still, you could tune into CBS just a few short weeks ago to see voting rights superstar Stacey Abrams asked by Gayle King, “So, what are you thinking about when it comes to dating in your life?”)

I am a journalist. Without events like news conferences, I cannot do my job. But as a woman who has watched too many of these conferences in cringing anticipation of when the athlete/actor/candidate was going to be asked “How guilty do you feel every day as a working mom?” or “How do you respond to charges that you alone are responsible for Ben Affleck’s relapse?” or “Dump out your purse and show us if you have any fancy tampons” – as a woman who has witnessed all that, I feel nothing but relief when famous women refuse to play on an uneven field.

In Osaka’s statement, she could not have been kinder or more self-flagellating. She apologized profusely for the “distraction” she said she had caused and said that her timing could have been better. “I get really nervous, and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”

It’s lovely of her to let us off the hook. But sometimes there are no right answers to a demonstrable pattern of bad questions.

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