“It is a part of your job.” “You are being paid millions of dollars each year.” “You are a privileged brat who is exploiting and trivialising mental health.”
These are some of the profoundly hysterical responses by a slew of callous simpletons that tennis star Naomi Osaka had to endure after her decision to not attend the press conferences because of mental health struggles.
In an ideal world, board officials should have addressed Osaka’s concerns, done what they could do to help her in her bouts against anxiety, and applaud her for mustering up the courage to prioritise her mental health. Instead, she was pilloried, fined 15 grand, and threatened with suspension following which she announced to withdraw from the French Open.
It is worth a mention that Naomi didn’t refuse to take questions on the court following her victory in the first-round match, which means that she was setting a boundary on how much time she can give to the media to protect her mental health. Attending press conferences or answering media questions might be an athlete’s obligation but they can be taxing. This is not to suggest cutting journalists’ access to players at all but the point at issue is whether press conferences are banal or do they offer anything relevant to the game.
In his column for The Guardian, Jonathan Liew writes, “The modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest‑common‑denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible.”
In addition to this, other journalists who have attended numerous press conferences were also of the view that these conferences are superfluous.
Lindsay Andler, The Athletic’s reporter for New York Yankees, tweeted; “We don’t *want* press conferences. We want to talk to people in person, like human beings. The reality TV-ification of press availability is an annoyance to me.”
Pakistan’s Ahmer Naqvi also took to Twitter to post a thread about the banality of press conferences and how majority of the cricket press conferences he has attended have been useless.
“Other than incredibly lazy questions, the only alternative is cynical types looking to pounce on anything that can be spun to be controversial,” Ahmer tweeted. “There are a handful of journos who want to ask interesting things, but the players are so scared of being quoted out of context that they will (understandably) give a generic answer that covers all bases.”
If any athlete or even Naomi in this case would have excused themselves from any obligation because of a physical injury like a wrist or leg injury, there would have been no furore. This triggers a pertinent question: why is then Osaka getting so muck flak over mental health struggles? All of the criticism of Naomi Osaka stems mainly from the pernicious misconception that athletes are immune to mental breakdowns. As a consequence, many athletes are reluctant to come forward and speak about mental health issues because of the stigma attached to mental problems.
English presenter Charlie Webster is doing an incredible job to lay this misconception to rest by inviting current and retired athletes to her podcast, ‘My Sporting Mind’, where they talk about their mental wellbeing journey.
Governing bodies often wax lyrical about how they care for the athletes and their mental health but this Naomi episode is a damning indictment of their utter disregard for the mental health of players. Also, a tip of the hat to Naomi for not cowing down to the pressure by board officials and showing that mental health and self-care comes ahead of everything else.