Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday, sparking the question, “What do athletes owe us?”
The Grand Slam Tournaments fined her $15,000 for opting out of a post-match news conference after a first-round victory. In a statement on Twitter, Osaka cited mental health reasons.
She wrote, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US 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.”
She noted that the tennis press has “always been kind” and continued, “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.”
The 23-year old Haitian-Japanese tennis player’s economic privilege and large media platform undoubtedly factored into her willingness to withdraw from the tournament. But her stance shines a light on the interconnected issues of productivity, social expectations, and mental health for workers across all industries and with varying levels of socioeconomic status.
The four Grand Slam tournament administrations (the French Open, Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open) threatened Naomi Osaka with possible additional punishment, up to disqualification or suspension, if she resolved to “not do any press.”
The Grand Slam organizers made a statement which included the following: “As a sport, there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, 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.”
Introversion, Social Expectations, and Emotional Labor
The interesting thing about the organizers’ statement is that it acknowledges that media appearances are, in fact, labor. That engaging in them takes energy and time. What’s not acknowledged is that the way each of us experiences social/emotional labor is different.
For introverts, like Osaka, and for those who have anxiety, this kind of labor can be far more draining. It can even become debilitating.
Let’s take the organizers’ stated intentions at face value for a moment (I’ll resist my cynical assessment that this is about potential dollars earned from these media appearances rather than fairness)…
In an effort to make the tournaments “fair,” the organizers are actually making them less fair by putting an undue burden on those whose mental health is compromised in the process. And, of course, negative mental health outcomes affect athletic performance.
It’s more labor for someone like Osaka–an introvert, experiencing depression–to engage in these interviews than it is for an extrovert who feels psychologically well.
The idea that “honoring a commitment” is more important than honoring one’s own mental health needs (which may change from day to day, or tournament to tournament) is ludicrous.
This isn’t about the “right” or the “wrong” of her decision according to the Grand Slam handbook and Osaka hasn’t objected to the fines. It’s about her courage to do what’s best for herself in a world that demands and demands and demands that athletes (and especially women of color) give all of themselves until there may be nothing left.
naomi osaka forces a conversation on mental health in sports
Osaka’s decision revived an important conversation on mental health in sports.
International Tennis Federation official Heather Bowler said the sport will “review what needs to evolve.”
Fellow athletes who’ve spoken out in support of Osaka include, among others, Serena Williams, Gael Monfils, Novak Djokovic, and Ann Li.
Celebrities and members of the general public have posted messages of encouragement on social media. The day after Osaka’s Twitter announcement, Common tweeted, “Self care and self preservation is paramount! Take care of yourself sister! I’m proud of you @naomiosaka.”
Predictably, toxic men–like Piers Morgan–have criticized Osaka’s prioritizing her mental health.
Morgan called her a “petulant little madam” and “an arrogant spoiled brat,” who was making a move “straight out of the Meghan [Markle] and [Prince] Harry playbook.” He claimed she is using “mental health as a weapon to silence criticism.”
Journalist Will Swanton wrote in The Australian, “The immaturity, preciousness and hypocrisy of Naomi Osaka leaves me speechless.”
The implied logic of Osaka’s critics is that she knew the expectations of athletes when she got into the game (she was 14 at the time of her first professional qualifying match) and she agreed to the terms (which includes attending press events) upon entering the tournament. Therefore, her critics view her refusal to participate in the mandated events as an act of entitlement. They infantilize her, portraying her as a spoiled brat who whines, “But, I don’t wanna!”
But I see Naomi Osaka’s decision as just the opposite. She demonstrates a level of self-awareness and self-love that should not be confused with self-centeredness. She doesn’t display immaturity, she shows us her wisdom.
She’s not “out of touch.” She’s a realist who knows that, if she’s to be in the game for the long haul, she needs to find a balance between professional obligations and personal mental health requirements. Anything else isn’t sustainable.
And if the game of tennis and those who gate-keep these events won’t allow this balance, she’ll choose herself over the game. They don’t own her.
And she gets to change her mind.
We can write off these men’s opinions as “extreme,” but there’s a reason guys like Morgan retain an audience. They reflect an ugly truth about our dominant culture; one that many viewers and readers embrace.
We demand our athletes be modern day gladiators. (Never mind that historical gladiators were typically enslaved persons and many of them died in competition)
We hold on to this tired myth of the stoic athlete whose entire purpose is to perform heroic feats for an arena of spectators. We deny their humanity because acknowledging they’re multi-faceted beings, with desires and needs outside the arena, would make our endless demands of them painful to us.
Thus, we keep them on a pedestal. They are elevated, but they are also confined.
Though Morgan’s and Swanton’s insidious comments may seem hyperbolic, the blunt vitriol accurately reflects our collectively held views of work and mental health, particularly when it comes to women and persons of color.
The French Open responded to Osaka’s decision to not participate in media events in a tweet that was later deleted. They’d posted a photo of prominent tennis pros Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka, and Coco Gauff engaging with the press, accompanied by the caption, “They understood the assignment.”
The message is clear: fall in line or be destroyed.
Naomi Osaka’s actions resist status quo expectations of athletes’ emotional labor. Her withdrawal offers an alternative to long-held beliefs about what athletes owe us. She demonstrates that self-determination is possible. Perhaps in the future it won’t come at a cost.
Mental Health Support
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis visit the SAMHSA National Helpline for resources, or call 1-800-662-HELP, 24/7.
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Photo credit: Peter Menzel, creative commons license (edited)