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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Never before has an athlete been so celebrated for withdrawing from competition. Naomi Osaka, the world’s best-paid female athlete, withdrew from the French Open last week after facing the threat of disqualification for refusing to speak to the press. Ms. Osaka said she has suffered from bouts of depression in recent years. The fallout from her admission has reverberated far beyond the tennis world, with many arguing that athlete-media interactions should now be reimagined to preserve the mental health of players. This would be a mistake.

Even before the French Open, Ms. Osaka emerged as a media darling for her Black Lives Matter advocacy; now her “courage” and “bravery” have vaulted her very close to canonization. The commentator S.E. Cupp opined, “Osaka’s brave admission is a potential game-changer, and represents a bigger generational shift in the way we approach mental health.” Deadspin, a one-time sports website that’s now essentially a left-wing advocacy group, said Ms. Osaka was “bullied out of the French Open.”


Ben Rothenberg, an uber-woke tennis correspondent for The New York Times, tweeted that the way Ms. Osaka was treated stood in “STARK contrast to the ATP’s disinterest in a whole string of misdeeds by white male players.” CNN quoted a consultant who likened “often male-dominated” press conferences to a “vulture’s pit,” and a sports psychologist who asserted that losing athletes shouldn’t be subjected to press conferences, a bad idea that’s gaining currency in the wake of the Osaka affair. Calm, a meditation app, offered to pay the fines of any tennis pros who skip press conferences. Even Hillary Clinton tweeted that she was “inspired by @NaomiOsaka’s courage.”

I’ve covered tennis tournaments, and have participated in many press conferences. Players are rarely browbeaten, even after losses, and Ms. Osaka has long been treated with kid gloves, particularly since last year when she emerged as a BLM activist. Ms. Osaka participated in BLM marches in Minneapolis and boycotted her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, effectively forcing the tournament to cancel play for the day.

She garnered more than 400,000 likes tweeting,  “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hands of police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.” No reporter dared to question the comparison. At the next tournament, the U.S. Open, she wore masks paying tribute to Black people killed by police officers, elevating her media profile from super-heroine to saint.

Ms. Osaka made an estimated $55 million last year, nearly all of it from endorsements. Her activism plays well in an era when corporations can’t be too woke. The media has played a big role in making her cash registers sing, and the can-I-lick-the-crumbs-from-your-table softballs they lob her way are often juicer than 50 mph second serves.

For example, in the two tournaments prior to the French Open she was congratulated for a sportsmanship award she won and was asked what she was wearing in the “beautiful” picture she posted. She was queried about being one of the “new faces of Louis Vuitton,” chairing The Met Gala, and how she would prepare for potentially meeting Rihanna. After losing to Karolina Muchova in Madrid, a reporter tried to put a positive spin on her loss, asking about the progress she made and what positives she took from the match.

After another loss in Miami in March, a reporter prefaced a question about the George Floyd murder trial by saying, “There are many people who say what you have done for a good stretch now is just amazing, but what’s even more amazing is really what you have done off court.” And after he most recent loss in Rome, she didn’t even have to do press because none of the reporters present requested her.

So much for male-dominated viper pits, right? Ms. Osaka, to her credit, belatedly acknowledged as much, writing after her withdrawal that “the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

I hope Ms. Osaka overcomes her anxiety and bouts of depression. But I’m concerned about the “generational shift” the media is promoting with respect to sports and mental health. Millennial and Generation Z athletes have grown up in an era of safe spaces and ubiquitous social media, where users can insulate themselves from opposing viewpoints and block or mute voices they don’t want to hear.

Many now argue we should give athletes hall passes from talking to the media after losses. What’s next? Will we dispatch teams of therapy dogs to the locker rooms of losing teams? I think Serena Williams was on to something when she said that dealing with the media and walking in difficult moments made her stronger. Ms. Osaka apparently used to believe the same thing. At the 2019 U.S. Open, after beating then 15-year-old Coco Gauff, she coaxed a tearful and reluctant Coco Gauff into doing an on-court interview. “I told her no because I knew I was going to cry the whole time, but she encouraged me to do it,” Ms. Gauff said through her tears.

Our woke culture of safe spaces and self-care discourages people from stepping outside their comfort zones. But it’s experiences like the one Ms. Osaka goaded Ms. Gauff into having that build character. Uber-woke, groupthink reporters can be an unimpressive lot, prone to advocacy and sycophancy. But as a sports fan, I still like to hear them query athletes after they win, and especially after they lose, because you can tell a lot about someone’s character in defeat. And sometimes sore losers turn into gracious ones as they mature. As W.C. Fields once said, “Some people are born losers, others acquire the knack gradually.” 

• Dave Seminara is the author of “Foosteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts” and “Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth.”


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