Naomi Osaka has forever tarnished the sanctity of the great game of tennis. . . at least, according to the media.
Since announcing her decision to skip the traditional press conferences at the French Open to take care of her mental health, the world number two player has been at the centre of a manufactured controversy—highlighting a sharp divide between the tennis governing bodies and the media, and the players of the game and the audiences or fans who watch.
In response to her decision, the grand slam organisers fined her and threatened her with expulsion should she continue to refuse to speak to the media, something which players are obligated to do by the tournaments Code of Conduct. Following this, Osaka decided to quit the tournament altogether, outlining her decision and the reasons for doing so in a Twitter post (which you can read below).
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
The escalation caused by this decision has turned a curious incident highlighting one of the stranger rules of many sport tournaments into a full-blown media controversy. The Australian columnist Will Swanton claimed, “Her stance is petulant” and called her a “diva”. Controversial UK television personality Piers Morgan branded her as narcissistic, claiming that the move was a “cynical exploitation of mental health to silence the media”. In response to the decision, French tennis chief Gilles Moretton said that the decision was a “phenomenal error.” In a more moderate stance, some other tennis professionals such as Ash Barty and Rafael Nadel has noted that they view the press conferences as an important part of the job, while highlighting they respect Osaka’s decision.
In contrast, Osaka’s move to pull out in the wake of the controversy has attracted widespread support from other sports professionals and fans. NBA superstar Stephen Curry tweeted his support stating “You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this – but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect.” Similarly, 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, who Osaka notably beat in a controversial final at the 2018 US Open, voiced her support, stating that she wished she could give her a hug. The support is echoed by many tennis fans who have criticised the French Open and tennis organisers for their handling of the situation.
At the time of writing, the tournament is still underway, and Osaka is still sitting out. Despite the media controversy, neither the French Open nor Osaka have issued apologies for their handling of the event, and it is unclear whether Osaka’s stance will trigger any kind of reform around the ways in which players are obligated to deal with the press. What is clear is that the decisions she has made have highlighted some important ideas—not only raising more awareness about mental health issues, but also about what it means to hold to a principle in the public eye.
The media frenzy which has sprung from Osaka’s actions has once again brought discussion of mental health to the forefront of public debate. Osaka cited a desire to “exercise self-care” in her decision to step back from the conferences, noting that she suffers from depression and that the regular conferences are “stressful”. In doing so, Osaka has highlighted the universality of mental health problems. Osaka, it should be noted, is extremely rich and successful—the fine received for skipping media engagements was said to be $15,000, a payout which would put many ordinary citizens in debt but is less of a cost for somebody with the sponsorship deals that Osaka has. Similarly, Osaka has the adoration of many fans and a supportive network of friends and colleagues to help her—but this does not shield her from the difficulties that many others face. As we have previously covered, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues can affect anybody—and are sometimes exasperated by the pressures of fame and the expectations that it can place upon you.
These issues are not new issues—indeed many famous figures from the past have been described as dealing with what we would now describe as mental illness. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suffered from depression enough that friends worried he may commit suicide. One of the world’s most famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh, suffered from some form of mental illness which led to depressive episodes all throughout life—his last words after allegedly shooting himself were reported to be “The sadness will last forever.” One might even interpret the biblical figure of Moses’ doubts about his public speaking abilities (Exodus 4:10-15) as a form of social anxiety, or King Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 1 to be indicative of a battle with depression. But while these issues have been around for centuries, it is only recently that we have become more comfortable speaking about them.
Over the past decade, great advances have been made in raising awareness of mental health issues and the ways they can affect many. Other examples from the sporting industry include AFL player Buddy Franklin, who received support from his club and vast portions of the population after bowing out of the 2015 finals season to focus on his mental health, and former rugby player Greg Inglis, who has turned his struggles with mental health into a force for good by sharing his story at schools to raise awareness of the issues. So while the criticism of Naomi Osaka for speaking on these issues shows we still have a ways to go in regards to fully accepting and discussing them, this issue is one that is thankfully a lot more socially acceptable to talk about now. Unfortunately, this acceptance does not necessarily extend to sportspeople using their platforms to discuss other important issues.
Osaka is not unique in risking her career to highlight an issue which is of great importance to her (though she likely did not intend for her decision to bring this topic into the public eye in the way that it did). Perhaps one of the most well-known examples in recent times is American football star Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systematic oppression in the country—many argue that this protest contributed to his status as an unsigned player in the league. Similarly, former Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes used his platform to call out racism on and off the field—a move which led to a sustained booing campaign from fans that eventually led him to retire from the game. Casting our eye further back, Muhammad Ali was an outspoken activist and world champion boxer whose objection to the Vietnam War and related draft cost him four years of his career.
Of course, it is not only sports people who take a stand on important issues. The past decade has seen a cavalcade of civil unrest centred on a variety of issues, with many people, public figures and private citizens alike, taking to the street or to the web to protest on matters they deem important. These issues may be political, cultural, or environmental, but no matter the issue at hand, they are almost always contentious.
Taking a stand is also not without consequence. The repercussions for these sportspeople have been outlined above, but even regular citizens protesting can face repercussions for their actions. Recently Associated Press journalist Emily Wilder was fired due to tweets she posted in support of Palestine—tweets that were brought to the Associated Press’ attention due to a targeted campaign against her because she held this opinion. Similarly, a New Jersey lawyer resigned from her job after increasing pressure was placed on her when her off-duty activism came to light because of a Republican Congressman who opposed it. Then there’s the numerous examples of Amazon employees risking or losing their jobs to engage in activism which promotes better working conditions than the current ones (which at one point led to a worker who died of a heart attack allegedly being left on the floor for 20 minutes before receiving treatment). Even one of our contributors, Mark Delaney, has taken part in multiple climate change protests—knowing that he would be arrested for doing so.
These examples may seem like a far cry from the current furore which surrounds Naomi Osaka, but they share an underlying idea: people risking their jobs or personal reputation to highlight important issues which society is struggling with. But while this activism is becoming increasingly commonplace or accepted by many, it is not necessarily a new thing. Indeed, we can see that—according to at least one religion—it is something that has been encouraged for millennia.
The Bible, far from being a strict set of rules or condemnations as some may view it, has been providing motivation for social activism for centuries. In Proverbs 31:8,9 a command is given: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 Paul lays out one of the key goals of the early Christian church in clear detail—equality for all. “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’”
To go back even further, to a previously mentioned example, Moses was once a member of the Egyptian royal family, but later turned against them when he sought emancipation for the Israelite slaves. Similarly, the tale of Esther tells of her risking her life and position as queen to prevent an atrocity against the Jewish people.
The Bible is filled with many examples of, or calls to engage in, activism. It also highlights the importance of holding strong in beliefs. Once gain turning to one of the earliest church members Paul, we can see him repeatedly encouraging church members to “stand firm” (1 Corinthians 15:58, 16:13, Philippians 1:27, 4:1) and strive towards the example that Jesus has set for us.
And lest we think that this is yet another form of armchair activism or preaching without risk, the fate of many early Christians should serve as a reminder that we should not be afraid to sacrifice for our ideals. Paul was imprisoned on multiple occasions and ultimately executed. Many of Jesus’ disciples suffered a similar fate, such as Peter, while others faced exile due to their preaching of the word and Jesus radical message of compassion and inclusivity—which went against the powers in both religion and politics at the time.
But perhaps the most significant example is Jesus Himself. Jesus came to earth to preach a message of forgiveness, compassion and equality—one which was free for all to partake in, should they choose to accept. This message, while compelling for many, angered the religious leaders of the time, who successfully conspired to have him killed for what they viewed as heresy. Jesus willingly accepted this for the sake of his mission, to create a fair and better world when he ultimately returns.
Knowing this, we must ask ourselves a simple question: when issues of importance come up, and we are required to take a side, what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of what is right?
Ryan Stanton is a PhD Student studying in the Media and Communications school at the University of Sydney. He may not be an expert in sport, but he does have a keen interest in issues surrounding mental health, justice, and the media’s depiction of them.