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Larry Stone: Naomi Osaka’s French Open withdrawal prompts an overdue reexamination of athletes and mental health

UPDATED: Sat., June 5, 2021

Naomi Osaka of Japan returns the ball to Jessica Pegula of the United States during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome last month.  (Associated Press)
Naomi Osaka of Japan returns the ball to Jessica Pegula of the United States during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome last month. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

Naomi Osaka isn’t playing tennis as the French Open heads toward the homestretch, which may well have been the situation under any circumstances. Though a four-time Grand Slam singles champion and the No. 2 singles player in the world, Osaka has notoriously struggled on clay, never advancing beyond the third round at Roland Garros.

The reason for Osaka’s absence has nothing to do with her performance. It is based on her pre-emptive decision, announced via Instragram before the tournament, to skip the mandatory post-match news conferences at the French Open, citing mental-health concerns. That revelation prompted such a harsh reaction from tournament organizers that Osaka, after a first-round victory, pulled out of the event altogether.

The French Open is undeniably less compelling without one of the most dynamic players in all of tennis. Yet Osaka’s actions (which I see as brave and heartfelt, unlike naysayers such as Piers Morgan, who called Osaka “world sport’s most petulant little madam”) are ultimately a good thing. They are prompting discussion and soul-searching on serious issues – ones that are ripe for re-examination at a turbulent time in modern society.

Foremost is the growing understanding that just because one is an elite athlete doesn’t shield her or him from mental-health struggles. That message is being put forth with increasing eloquence and urgency by any number of athletes, including Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Amanda Beard and a growing number of others.

Hopefully we’re getting the message that anxiety, depression and other manifestations of mental illness in athletes are not signs of weakness to be hidden away by them or belittled by us. The more that mental illness is normalized and destigmatized, the easier it will be for people to get the help they need.

In that regard, Osaka provided a tremendous service. In her social-media statement announcing her withdrawal from the French Open, Osaka wrote: “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public 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. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the news conferences.”

Only the coldest or most cynical of hearts would demean Osaka’s motives here. She has, in fact, received an outpouring of support from all realms – fans, fellow celebrities and much of the media. You can sense much empathy for her situation. Even the leaders of the four Grand Slam events, which had united to threaten Osaka with additional sanctions (besides fines for skipping the news conferences) including disqualification or suspension, issued a joint statement pledging to support her concerns regarding players’ mental health.

That’s progress on one front. But a second realm of related discussion has emerged: the future of media and athlete interactions, and the value of news conferences altogether.

Athletes not wanting to talk to the media is hardly a new phenomenon. I remember in the 1990s when the Mariners’ writers found out that pitcher Bobby Ayala was boycotting the press – of which no one was aware for a few weeks because there had been no attempts to interview him.

Steve Carlton, a Hall of Fame pitcher from 1965-88, went much of his career refusing interviews, as did a sprinkling of other prominent athletes. Of course, everyone remembers the spectacle involving Marshawn Lynch before Super Bowl XLIX, when he sat defiantly in front of a horde of reporters and said, “I’m only here so I won’t get fined.”

I wrote at the time, “The whole three days were degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing – pick your adjective – for both sides.” It showed what a farce news conferences could be at times. Charles Pierce, a noted writer of both politics and sports, opined this week of “pressers,” as they’re known in the biz: “These exercises are an excuse for an athlete or politician to say nothing, and for reporters to preen for the cameras and their colleagues. You couldn’t find actual news at one with an electron microscope.”

Speaking from the experience of attending hundreds of pressers over 40 years, I’d say true, and false. All that Pierce says certainly happens, but so does insight, wisdom, humanity and knowledge.

You might find this hard to believe, but I swear it’s true: The motivation of the vast majority of journalists is a good-faith effort to present the truth, to humanize athletes, and to provide in-depth layers of information about the events and people that are so important to so many. I’ve found it’s best done in one-on-one settings, but sometimes circumstances make that impossible, and group interview sessions are necessary.

Yes, the times they are a’changing. Athletes no longer need the media in the same way as before, as the conduit between themselves and the public. The advent of social media has changed the dynamic and made it possible to convey one’s message directly to the masses, without a middle man or woman.

However, what I said during Lynch’s Super Bowl circus remains true: I think there’s still a market for independent voices to interview, interpret and present these athletes as multifaceted human beings. And to probe them for insights about their profession, because it intensely interests many people. It can be beneficial to all parties.

The Osaka situation, as Lynch’s did before hers, drives home the point that it’s inhumane to force people into interview settings that so clearly cause distress. One’s mental health obviously takes precedence over a good sound byte or nugget of news. I can’t imagine anyone disputing that.

I’m reminded of a quote that always stuck with me by former pitching star Vida Blue in his autobiography, Vida: His Own Story, about his discomfort with interviews: “It’s like giving little pieces of me away each time. If I keep giving pieces of myself away, after awhile what will I have left?”

I don’t think most athletes see media interactions that way, as a zero-sum endeavor. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if many athletes, including Osaka, related to Blue. I hope we in the media can strive for increased compassion and empathy for them.

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