Media

Naomi Osaka’s refusal to do press conferences should be the exception to the rule

Osaka's reasoning to skip press conferences was fair. But as the pandemic ends, the sports world's relationship with the media should return to normal.

Naomi Osaka's dropped out of the French Open after she was fined for skipping a press conference.

The Naomi Osaka/French Open/press-access contretemps this week has multiple layers. Some are complex, some simpler, and all of them seem to stand as one more reminder that civilization peaked before social media.

I’m not saying we’re all doomed to skid angrily along the information superhighway without guardrails, firing off memes and emojis as artificial substitutes for actual thought and emotion, until the planet flips off its lights for good.

It just feels that way far too often, especially in a situation like Osaka’s, when a story that should be focused around providing understanding and empathy for the pressures young athletes face offshoot into something else entirely.

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The whole thing began on May 26, four days before the start of the French Open, when the 23-year-old Osaka, a four-time winner of Grand Slam events, announced via Twitter that she would not be talking to the press at the tournament.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,’’ she wrote. “If the organizations think they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”

The sport botched the response, paying more attention to her tone than what she was actually saying. The French Open, worried in part that she might set a precedent among her peers, fined her for not speaking to the media in a post-match press conference after the first round. Other tournaments threatened similar punishments.

Osaka, who had previously acknowledged battling social anxiety as she emerged as one of the premier tennis players in the world, explained her decision with candor in another post on Monday.

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“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,’’ 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.

“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. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”

It can’t go unnoticed that Osaka’s second statement actually showed the rare value of social media; it gave her a forum to clarify and further explain her decision. It also should have reminded us that the most important layer to this story, far above any other aspect, was the well-being of a charismatic and compelling young athlete who was struggling within herself.

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Her explanation should have brought great empathy. In some corners, it did. But social media, in particular, the important conversation about the mental burdens of athletes ended up rolling around in the same maelstrom as arguments about the value of press conferences, the obligations of athletes with the media, and what kind of access reporters should have.

Don’t get me started; those are relevant topics, especially to any sports media reporter worth their notepad, even if they are the lesser layers of this story. The problem is that they were often ill-informed and based on inaccurate preconceived notions.

One of the many things that are insufficiently taught in this country’s classrooms is media literacy. Those that generalize and blame “the media” for this, or “the media” for that have either no concept of or no interest in comprehending the various roles, obligations, and nuances of the multiple gigs in sports media alone.

Objective beat writers, subjective columnists, color analysts, local news reporters, talk show hosts, whatever the hell it is that Skip Bayless does, and so many other media jobs should never be placed under the same broad umbrella. It like suggesting every restaurant worker or hospital employee has the same gig. But it’s so much easier to generalize, and there are few social media consequences for ignorance as long as you have a take.

Those post-event press conferences can be silly if the subject isn’t engaged and the questions are of the low “Talk about …” quality. But there is often fundamental value for the beat writers, the ones who cover teams or sports on a day-to-day basis, in just getting notable information to pass along to readers.

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When big news happens, these conferences are of even greater value – they allow reporters to ask the questions that readers or viewers are wondering about. When Celtics fans were blindsided Wednesday by the news that Danny Ainge was retiring as president of basketball operations and Brad Stevens would move from coaching to the front office, the team made Ainge, Stevens, and owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca available. Colleague Gary Washburn asked three immediate questions of Ainge: Is this health-related? Do you have plans to work in another front office soon? And did you know during the season that you were leaving? Washburn’s questions and Ainge’s answers to them ended up correcting misinformation that had been floating around social media.

Press conferences also offer occasional windows into an athlete’s personality. I had to chuckle the other night when the Dodgers’ Clay Bellinger, who had just returned from an injury, joked that he was so out of practice that he had lost his ability to answer questions coherently.

Another layer, and the much bigger media issue than the importance of press conferences, is access in general. Reporters, relegated to impersonal Zoom interviews since the pandemic began in March 2020, are wary that clubhouse access will never be the same in the post-Covid world. The Washington Post reported Friday that the NFL is most likely to keep locker rooms closed in the 2021 season.

That is not good for reporters or fans, and it was perplexing to see some journalists on Twitter making the case for diminished access in the wake of the Osaka story. The locker room is where relationships and rapport are built, where questions are asked to find answers to the questions that won’t be found on a spin-focused site like the Players’ Tribune, where the sparks for the most informative stories begin. It is by no means the only or most recent example for this, but colleague Julian McWilliams’s August 2020 piece on Jackie Bradley Jr.’s mother’s career as a police officer always stayed with me as a story that emerged from the foundation of a trusting relationship.

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With locker room access, the causes of the Celtics’ inconsistency this season would have been easier to diagnose and detail. There would have been more specifics to share with readers about J.D. Martinez’s struggles in 2020. And as Cam Newton noted on Zoom at the end of the Patriots season, he never got to meet the reporters covering him face to face.

The distance was necessary during the pandemic, of course, and to their credit, the local teams did try to offer the most cooperative alternative available. But with everything else opening up, locker rooms must as well eventually. Otherwise, losing access means a corresponding loss of information and insight for the fans.

After she explained her circumstances, no one should have demanded that Osaka fulfill her French Open media obligations. In the name of empathy, there have to be exceptions to media access. Reporters need to make a greater effort to account for the pressures athletes face. Hopefully, we can do that well enough that athletes understand that journalists aren’t out to get them, but just hope to tell their story in the truest form.

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