Naomi Osaka Is Part of a Larger War Within Sports

The tennis star’s fight with the French Open is a disagreement over who should make the rules—and how much power athletes have to protect themselves.

Naomi Osaka
USA TODAY Sports

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Congratulations, tennis. You’ve won neither the battle nor the war with Naomi Osaka, but you have just bullied one of the biggest stars in your sport into quitting a major tournament that could use the publicity she would have brought to it.

Osaka, the second-ranked woman in international tennis and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, withdrew from the French Open after a power struggle with tournament officials over whether she would attend obligatory press conferences. Osaka has had trouble in that tournament in the past, having never advanced out of the third round. Last week, Osaka announced on social media that she was skipping all news conferences during the event to protect her mental health. “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 last week. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Critics quickly portrayed Osaka as shirking one of her fundamental duties: communicating with the public. In reality, the episode laid bare some of the deeper tensions in big-money athletics. Who controls a sport—the leagues that organize the competition, or the athletes who actually play? When athletes have direct access to fans via social-media platforms, what role should traditional sports media play? And when athletes, particularly athletes of color, feel mistreated by tournaments, sports leagues, and media outlets alike, what recourse do they have?

As a sportswriter for more than 20 years, I have attended many of the postgame news conferences that so unsettle Osaka. These sessions help journalists and fans understand what we’ve just witnessed and why individual athletes defied expectations or failed to rise to the occasion. They also help humanize athletes whose personalities might not always come through in game footage alone. But even for seasoned journalists, the experience can be awkward. Most of us would prefer to conduct private interviews with athletes, but logistically that’s not feasible. Even if athletes could spend one-on-one time with several different news outlets, they would be subjected to a lot of the same questions. Still, the reliance on press conferences means that journalists often have to ask intrusive questions in front of a crowd.

Press conferences are more crucial for journalists who report on tennis than those who report on other sports. In the NBA, the NFL, the WNBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL, players speak with the press almost daily during their respective seasons. Tennis players, by contrast, are generally unavailable outside of tournaments. The game, although popular in America, is covered with greater intensity overseas. These factors can result in aggressive questioning of athletes during press conferences. (Although press conferences have a function in the news-gathering process, leagues have also been able to turn access to players into an additional source of revenue. Notice how many different brands and companies are on the banners behind professional athletes when they speak with the press. That placement isn’t free.)

Rather than figure out a way to support Osaka or come to a workable compromise, French Open officials fined her $15,000 after she didn’t participate in the mandatory news conference following her first-round win on Sunday. The fine was not a surprise. In the past, other tennis stars have skipped news conferences and received the same treatment.

But tournament leaders weren’t satisfied with a fine. Officials from across the tennis world felt the need to put Osaka in her place. In a statement signed by the heads of all four Grand Slam tournaments—Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the U.S. Open, and the French Open—Osaka was warned that she could face suspension from future Grand Slam tournaments and harsher penalties if she did not fulfill her media obligations.

“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the statement said. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”

The end result—Osaka completely out of the tournament—benefited no one. Osaka’s subsequent explanation for her decision made tennis officials look all the more callous. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” 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.” If the Grand Slam officials’ goal was to show Osaka who’s in charge, this was an enormous misstep. The sport has only further demonstrated that such tactics with today’s athletes are ineffective, outdated, and likely to backfire at a time when athletes have more leverage than they’ve ever had.

Across all sports, top athletes are no longer willing to stay silent about anything—their own personal struggles or the social and political issues they care about. They want the full scope of their humanity considered, and they are willing to confront prejudice not only in sports but throughout society. Last year’s U.S. Open took place amid nationwide protests against racial injustice. Osaka, a 23-year-old of Japanese and Haitian ancestry, showed that her goal isn’t to make other people comfortable. She wore a succession of face masks bearing the names of Black people who’d been killed by police and other would-be law enforcers. After she claimed her third Grand Slam title, a reporter asked her what message she wanted to send. Osaka responded, “Well, what was the message that you got? [That] was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Osaka has received largely favorable coverage because of her performance on the court for the past two years. But she has witnessed the way two other tennis champions of color—Serena and Venus Williams—have been portrayed throughout their careers. In fact, in her Instagram post announcing that she was skipping out on media sessions at the French Open, Osaka included a clip from an interview Venus Williams did with ABC News in 1995, in which Williams’s father, Richard, chastised the interviewer for continually questioning his daughter about her seemingly high confidence.“You have to understand you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child,” he told the interviewer. “And this child is going to be out there playing when your old ass and me gonna be in the grave … You’re dealing with a little Black kid, and let her be a kid.”

Such scrutiny became part of an exhausting pattern for the Williams sisters. The New York Times once published an article about how other women in tennis don’t want the kind of body Serena Williams has.

During the U.S. Open final against Osaka in 2018, Serena Williams lost her composure after being cited for multiple rule violations during the match. Williams got into a heated argument with an umpire after he accused her of receiving coaching from the stands. The episode culminated in Williams slamming her racquet against the ground. Following her loss, an Australian newspaper published an editorial cartoon that deployed racist imagery reminiscent of the Jim Crow era to depict Williams as a poor sport. Williams’s lips were overexaggerated, and her body was drawn ludicrously big.

Osaka’s first major tournament victory should have been a celebratory moment, at least for her. But U.S. Open spectators booed her for beating Williams, the favorite, under acrimonious circumstances.

Notably, Osaka has cited the U.S. Open final against Williams as the starting point of her own depression and anxiety. Osaka was just as direct about her mental-health struggles when she withdrew from the French Open, drawing support from a wide array of athletes, many of whom have experienced the same anxiety about public speaking. At the French Open this week, Serena Williams told reporters: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug, because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.” The Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry tweeted, “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 @naomiosaka.”

That sports media in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly white and male contributes to the skepticism that many top athletes of color feel. According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ most recent report card for gender and racial diversity in U.S. sports media, 85 percent of sports editors are white, as are 80 percent of columnists and 82 percent of reporters. When I was a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel in 2005, a survey found that I was the only Black female sports columnist at a daily newspaper in North America. The lack of representation remains stunning—and embarrassing.

Most of the reporters I know—but not all—tread delicately when any player is having a difficult moment. But few of us dwell much on the mental health of the players we cover, the impact of nonstop scrutiny, and the emotional toll of having to explain tough losses, bad decisions, and subpar performances, as well as extraordinary success. And the possibility that people capable of athletic miracles might be in genuine emotional distress strikes many of us as incongruous.

Because of Osaka, I couldn’t help but think of the former NFL player Ricky Williams. In 2004, Williams briefly retired from the NFL at 27, after testing positive for marijuana for the third time—which would have triggered a four-game suspension and a $650,000 fine. He later returned to the NFL, but he was suspended for a year after a fourth positive test. His career, which was also interrupted by a series of injuries, eventually ended with the Baltimore Ravens after the 2011 season. Williams was routinely characterized as a misfit and someone who cared more about smoking marijuana than about football. He used to do postgame interviews with a helmet on because he hated dealing with the media.

But during the third year of his pro career, Williams was diagnosed with social-anxiety disorder. He had turned to marijuana to help cope with his struggles and to help heal his body. That put Williams’s entire career in a much different context. He has since become a strong advocate for cannabis use, and even started his own marijuana company. “The story was ‘football player retires to go smoke pot,’” Williams told CNBC in 2018. “And part of that was true, but it was much bigger than that. I was really redefining myself and figuring out what I want to do with my life.”

Many would look at intense media scrutiny and conflict with league officials as simply the price of being a successful professional athlete. But today’s athletes aren’t willing to put a happy face on their trauma just so the rest of us can be blissfully entertained.

The Brooklyn Nets star guard Kyrie Irving was fined twice this season for refusing to speak to the media, including last month. The first time was during training camp, when Irving issued a statement that read in part: “Instead of speaking to the media today, I am issuing this statement to ensure that my message is properly conveyed. I am committed to show up to work every day, ready to have fun, compete, perform, and win championships alongside my teammates and colleagues in the Nets organization. My goal this season is to let my work on and off the court speak for itself. Life hit differently this year and it requires us, it requires me, to move differently. So, this is the beginning of that change.”

After being fined $25,000 by the NBA, Irving posted his response in an Instagram Story. “I pray we utilize the ‘fine money’ for the marginalized communities in need, especially seeing where our world is presently,” he wrote. “[I am] here for Peace, Love and Greatness. So stop distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art. We move different over here. I do not talk to Pawns. My attention is worth more.”

When Irving did finally talk to the media, he insisted that the “pawn” comment wasn’t an attack on journalists. “It’s really just about how I felt about the mistreatment of certain artists when we get to a certain platform of when we make decisions within our lives to have full control and ownership … We want to perform in a secure and protected space.”

The nagging suspicion that leagues and reporters alike fundamentally misunderstand athletes of color makes these athletes still more determined to cultivate their own image with fans. That’s why so many prominent athletes—including the NBA stars Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant—have opted to launch their own media companies. With their massive social-media followings, they can take their message directly to the public. Many of them don’t need press conferences to promote or build their brands, and the establishment is having trouble adjusting to the new normal, in which it can’t make players do what it wants simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

The issues that Osaka has raised aren’t going away. These days athletes would much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them. Not long ago, players couldn’t win any power struggles against the media, much less their own league. Now they can.