In March of 1991, NBA superstar Charles Barkley and his Phoenix Suns were playing in New Jersey when a hometown fan shouted racist slurs at him. Sir Charles responded by spitting at the fan, but his aim was off, and the spittle hit a little girl. Afterward, the press hammered Barkley about not being a good role model, and he snapped back by saying that he didn’t want to be a role model. Barkley felt that parents, not jocks, should be who kids look up to. I agree 100 percent with that sentiment; unfortunately, athletes can’t control who chooses to admire them. Moreover, young people are more observant than we sometimes give them credit for, and what they see their heroes do can inform how they themselves act in their own life. And that brings me to Naomi Osaka, a 23-year-old, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion.
Last week while competing at the French Open, Osaka refused to attend any post-game press conferences, something that is required of pro athletes in most major sports, including tennis. Officials at the Open asked her to reconsider and, according to Associated Press reporter Doha Madani, even attempted to “check on her well-being.” But Osaka stood her ground, so tournament officials fined her $15,000. After that, the popular player announced that she was withdrawing from the French Open. Writing on social media, Osaka said she refused to attend any press conferences because she “often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health.” But the confusion comes in the fact that Osaka had issued two different statements to explain her boycott of press conferences.
As Madani reported, Osaka’s first statement made it clear that she refused to show up for pressers simply because she did not want to answer “the same questions over and over again.” But in a later statement, she put an entirely different spin on the matter by playing the mental health card, and saying that she suffers long bouts of depression and “suffers great anxiety when faced with having to answer questions from journalists.”
Let me point out that Osaka is an adult and a professional. She signed on to play in the WTA, knowing what was expected of her and every other player. What’s more, Osaka has had no problem with benefiting financially from the system. Last year alone, she made over 37 million dollars, and most of that came from endorsements from companies who expect their stars to promote themselves and their products at every opportunity. In that regard, Osaka’s dramatic walk-out violated both the letter and the spirit of her contractual obligations and left the French Open without one of its biggest draws. Speaking with the Associated Press, tennis star Rafel Nadal put the matter into perspective, saying, “Without the press, without the people who are normally traveling and writing about the achievements we are having around the world, probably we would not be the athletes that we are today.”
Still, it should be noted that anxiety and depression are very real disorders that deserve our attention, especially because an increasing number of Americans suffer with them. In fact, the AP reports that according to a recent CDC survey, the number of adults with symptoms of a depressive disorder rose from 36% to 41% since last August, and nearly 12% of those folks “did not get the help they needed.”
So why then do I have the right to imply that Osaka is spoiled and selfish? After all, I’ve never played professional tennis, and I’m not an expert on anxiety and depression. But my bona fides include covering stars in every major sport, including interviews with Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova at a time when they were struggling with how and when to come out and in an era when sponsors would run away from gay stars. Osaka is fortunate to live in a more enlightened and politically correct era, which explains why her sponsors have stuck by her. King and Navratilova, meanwhile, went through hell, day in and day out, as journalists and lovers threatened to expose them. They knew all too well what anxiety and stress were all about, and yet they showed up for press conferences and stayed around to answer all sorts of questions for as long as they were needed, and that included spending one-on-one time with me when I was freelancing for ESPN and CNN. Billie Jean and Martina were role models to young women everywhere, and they accepted their responsibilities to their sport, their sponsors, and their fans, despite whatever personal stresses and traumas they were experiencing at the time.
And so, depending upon which of her explanations you believe, Naomi Osaka is either unwilling to answer questions from the press, or she’s unable to answer questions from the press. Only she knows which is really the case. If it’s the former, then she should continue to be fined for skirting her duties. If it’s the latter, then I wish her well with treatment and recovery. Either way, though, the message that she is sending to young people by boycotting press conferences and withdrawing from tournaments is that it’s OK to quit. It’s OK to walk away from your responsibilities and bite the hand of the sport that feeds you. And, it’s OK to go back on your word. Perhaps Miss Osaka’s symbolic spit is targeted at adults who don’t respect her emotional state, but her spittle is also hitting impressionable kids in the process. A tennis role model should have better aim.