Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a press conference row with the tournament’s organizers. The world number two tennis player, who is also the highest-paid female athlete, refused to attend post-match press conferences. Miss Osaka refused to attend press conferences citing that it was like kicking other players while they were down. Her refusal led to her being fined $15,000 by tournament organizers and cascaded into her withdrawal from this year’s French Open. The French Open, also known as Roland-Garros, is one of the four Grand Slam tournaments and is one of the major tennis events of the year. The French Open is played on a clay court and is very competitive.
On withdrawal from the tournament, Naomi Osaka said that she was withdrawing to cushion a meltdown and “maintain her sanity.” She went on her social media to reveal that she has suffered long bouts of depression since 2018. 2018 was the year when she won the U.S open and was her breakout year in Tennis. Naomi Osaka was born in Japanese and raised in the United States. She is ranked as the second-best player in women’s tennis in the world and at only 23 years old, has achieved so much. Mental health is increasingly a topic that is propping up in professional sports.
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The press conference issue has sparked a lot of controversy and has seen numerous entities come out in support of Naomi Osaka and her decision. Tennis is one of the major sports in the world and attains a lot of exposure. This exposure is part of why the sport has been such a success. Naomi Osaka is in a way at an inflection point owing to the pressure for her to perform from her fans, sponsors, and also her country and other entities. Players on the global stage face a lot of pressure from numerous fronts, including their parents and families and this may lead to burnout or even depression. Naomi Osaka is no different and as a 23-year old, she may be feeling trapped in all the expectations to perform at her very best.
French Open’s Knee-Jerk Reaction
The initial reaction by Roland-Garros to Naomi Osaka’s refusal to attend press conferences is what seems to have pushed her to pull out of the tournament. The organizers of the tournament fined her $15,000 for her refusal to give post-match conferences. Such penalties are protocol and somewhat needed to ensure that players meet their press obligations. Players who do not attend post-match press conferences are fined across the board, even in other sports and tournaments such as the NBA.
Sports such as basketball among others require that stars attend these conferences. It is seen as part of their obligations and players are expected to inculcate said conferences in their post-match routines. Some analysts see Naomi Osaka as cherry-picking on what her role is as a professional athlete or sportswoman. They say that as an athlete, the press is a major part of what makes them a star and a crucial part of their success in sport. Analysts say that it is the role of every professional player to meet his or her press obligations as such obligations are also part of their contractual agreements.
Post-match press conferences are also seen by fans as part of the interactivity of sports and players with fans. Take football for instance, wouldn’t it be a lot duller if the players did not attend press conferences? The issue, however, is that in today’s world where players can reach fans directly through social media, is it still a necessity for players to attend these conferences? Naomi Osaka believes that some of the tour’s rules are outdated and she wants to help change that.
A Need for Change
The current row between Naomi Osaka and the French Open’s organizers could lead to the changing of the rules. Attending post-match conferences may be shifted to being voluntary and not mandatory for the players. Osaka’s case is different though as she is suffering an illness. As per protocol, when a player is sick then he or she is not required to attend the conferences and is exempted. As such, it would have been only right for the tournament’s organizers to exempt her from attendance and not fine her. The twist is, however, that nobody at the time knew that Naomi Osaka was undergoing depression. Roland-Garros organizers even came out today to offer their support to her saying that they are looking forward to seeing her next year. They also said that she should take as much time as she needs to heal and get better.
Get well soon Naomi Osaka. 💐❤️ https://t.co/QKZ436c4BG
— Mania Sports (@maniaincsports) June 1, 2021
Naomi Osaka’s Pressure to Perform
Is the pressure on professional players too much? Are there unrealistic expectations on the roles of professional players? The answer is a probable yes. The truth is that professional sport is big business. Players need to perform to maintain their sponsorships or brand deals, and their standing as the world’s best. For instance, Naomi Osaka has a brand ambassadorship deal with Nike and was even the first woman tennis player to get a similar deal with Mastercard.
Brand Collaboration deals bring in millions of dollars to the players and potentially tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to the companies. However, such sponsorships require that athletes be on their top performance and keep performing even better. For example, if a female athlete gets pregnant, a brand ambassadorship deal or sponsorship may be adversely affected. In worst-case scenarios, brands may opt to sever the deal or lower the athlete’s pay.
The press conference row between Roland Garros and Naomi Osaka has brought the intensity of the expectations and pressure on professional athletes to light. Such pressure could be detrimental to the athlete’s well-being and mental health. It also marks another pointer to the insensitivity of the media especially when it comes to female players. At the post-match conferences, journalists may act in a sexist way and even ask inappropriate questions, as happened to Maria Sharapova. As such, the media too has failed to ensure that post-match conferences remain respectful, in good taste, and well-measured. It is unfortunate that in the process of chasing headlines, media personnel and entities will go to potentially disrespectful and inappropriate lengths in press conferences.
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Many people have lauded Naomi Osaka for her honesty and for coming out with the truth that she is and has suffered depression. We hope that she gets well soon and that sport as a whole is more sensitive to the health and wellbeing of players. Had the row occurred with a lower-ranked player, it probably would not have caused a media frenzy as Naomi Osaka’s has done. This also shows the inequality that is there in sports and exacerbated by player ranking. Sports is competition, however, and the best players may not be compared to those who are not doing as well. Even so, the welfare of all players, including theirmental health and wellbeing should be catered for and maintained, regardless of their ranking or prowess.