News conferences have been in the news ever since tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced last week she wasn’t going to meet the press during the French Open. This created quite the furor, not only among inquiring minds like mine, but also among many athletes who realize these volleys with the media are a necessary part of the job, an obligation to promote the games they play.
Though often banal and cliché-ridden, these news conferences really do serve a purpose. They produce copy, audio and video that stoke interest among fans and sponsors. They can help humanize the athletes in victory and defeat, make them more relatable. And this increased interest can translate into increased exposure, recognition and money for athletes, as well as for teams, leagues and events. The press — which even Osaka admits has been overwhelmingly positive during her young, meteoric career — has helped the 23-year-old become the highest-paid female athlete in the world, with annual prize money and endorsements topping $55 million.
So, when she made her initial statement, I thought to myself, here we go again. Another prima donna athlete who decided she couldn’t be bothered.
The issue came to a head Monday when Osaka dropped the bombshell that she was dropping out of the French Open. (Think Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen announcing they were dropping out of the AFC Championship Game.) But it also brought much-needed clarity and understanding. This wasn’t just about news conferences. This also was about an issue too often overlooked and stigmatized in sports and society: mental health.
“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,’’ Osaka wrote in an Instagram post explaining her decision. “The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw, so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
This was the first time Osaka has spoken publicly about her depression that she says began after her victory over Serena Williams three years ago at Flushing Meadows, in front of a boisterous New York City crowd that was firmly behind her opponent. The heir to Williams’ throne as the queen of women’s tennis did not say if she planned to play Wimbledon next month — and that’s fine. What’s important is she gets help for what is ailing her. Tennis can wait. So can the news conferences.
The response from the sports world and beyond has been overwhelmingly supportive. She has a huge international platform, and if she is able to regain her health, she can use it to call further attention to a problem that sports, in particular, still refuses to acknowledge and treat wholeheartedly. In recent years, swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, has spoken openly about his emotional struggles, as has National Basketball Association star Kevin Love. And, now, Osaka has, too. According to The Athletic, data shows that as many as 35 percent of elite athletes have suffered from a mental health crisis, such as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety.
“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted,” Osaka elaborated in her Instagram post. “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.”
Osaka cited that anxiety when she announced before the French Open that she wouldn’t be doing any post-match news conferences and was ready to accept the consequences — a $15,000 fine each time she missed a media scrum up to possible suspensions from Grand Slam tournaments for continued boycotts.
Although many applauded Osaka for taking a stance on mental health, some wondered if she really was just trying to avoid the inevitable questions she would be asked about never advancing beyond the third of seven rounds on the famed clay courts of Paris. Some believed Osaka was shirking her duties, seeking special treatment by not fulfilling her media obligations and promoting the sport like others were required to do.
Perhaps no one was more empathetic than Williams, whose path to a record-tying 24th Grand Slam victory had been denied by Osaka three years earlier, igniting the depression that resulted in the phenom’s withdrawal.
“I’ve been in those positions,’’ Williams said, when asked about feeling anxiety before press conferences. “We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can.”
When Osaka returns to professional tennis, she will have no choice but to attend more news conferences. Hopefully, she will have learned how to cope with her depression and anxieties, and be able to handle the questions, as so many other athletes and coaches have, about confronting past sporting failures. Hopefully, she’ll also be able to push forward the dialogue on mental illness, prompting Grand Slam organizers to take a more compassionate approach.
Perhaps she’ll learn to use news conferences as deftly as she uses her racquet. Perhaps they can trigger something positive in her and the millions who follow her. If they do, they can have an impact much more forceful than Osaka’s 125-mph serve.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.