What Osaka's French Open Exit Tells Us About Athletes and Media in 2021

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Tennis’s Grand Slam organizers tried to call Naomi Osaka’s bluff, and it probably would have worked if she were actually bluffing. She was not. Osaka chose to withdraw from the French Open rather than submit to postmatch press conferences—a tremendous sacrifice for the No. 2 player in the world.

You might wonder if press conferences are really that taxing for her mental health, but it’s not our question to ask. Osaka knows herself better than we do. If she says this is that important to her, then it is. Trying to intimidate somebody who says they have mental health challenges is not just off-putting; it can be dangerous.

There is a larger conversation to be had here, though, about athletes and media in 2021. As often happens when sensitive stories blow up, some people think they have to line up on one side or the other: You either support Osaka and think press conferences are a stupid waste of time, or you think she should toughen up and do her job. Well, I support Osaka. But press conferences are absolutely not a stupid waste of time. They benefit journalists, sure, but also fans and especially the people in the arena.

Naomi Osaka

Osaka is far from the first athlete who wanted to skip her media sessions. Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton famously no-commented his way through most of his career. Marshawn Lynch famously tried to get through a required Super Bowl media availability by answering every question with, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” and Rasheed Wallace famously answered every question in a press conference with, “Both teams played hard.”

Lynch and Wallace could both be highly insightful with reporters they trusted but didn’t care for formal press conferences or scrums. Their nonanswers were both entertaining and revealing in their own way—they showed us athletes who wanted to buck the system but couldn’t entirely escape it. Also, they were exceptions, as Carlton was. I can remember two baseball managers that I covered skipping media sessions—one because his awful team had played perhaps its most awful game and he was tired of politely dancing around how awful they were, and the other because he was highly irritated for some reason that I could not possibly remember anymore. In both cases, it was fine. They talked to us almost every day for eight months. The days when they didn’t were also exceptions.

Press conferences can be tedious, and I often skip them for purely selfish reasons—reporters all want exclusive information and, by definition, press conferences do not provide it. But they do supply a steady base layer of information that is critical for any fair and informative coverage of an event.

Press conferences give a manager a chance to explain the reasoning behind pulling a starting pitcher and allow that pitcher to say he was either angry or out of gas. They allow a WNBA coach to defend a short rotation and give Pete Carroll an opportunity to explain why he did not just hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch.

We all watch the games, but athletes always see, feel and understand what happens far better than we do. At the recent Masters, Justin Thomas explained how the grain of the grass contributed to one of the worst shots he hit all week: a wedge into a creek that took him out of the tournament. There is no way that reporters at Augusta National would have otherwise understood that.

As my longtime SI colleague Jon Wertheim wrote this week, most of Osaka’s fellow players empathize with her but also see press conferences as part of their job. But it is easy to foresee those attitudes changing soon, too. When athletes of Carlton’s day wanted to voice an opinion, they had limited options. These days, teams and athletes have their own podcasts, or friends with podcasts, or house organs that will airbrush their images. There are also fawning media outlets who either have financial arrangements with the people they cover or pseudo-journalists who don’t follow basic journalistic principles.

This is another reason press conferences are valuable. As long as the moderator does not play favorites, press conferences are democratic. Whether reporters are young and old, antagonistic or sycophantic, aggressive or lighthearted, from ESPN or a tiny weekly, they all get to ask questions. Take away the press conferences, and some athletes would go their entire careers without ever answering a tough question. They would not be held to account and we would never see anything resembling an authentic view of who they are. Everybody would lose—even those who think they are gaming the system.

Grand Slam organizers failed to consider that there have always been exceptions, and there should continue to be. Last year, perhaps the biggest story in Osaka’s sport was Novak Djokovic's accidentally hitting a lineswoman with a ball, triggering an automatic default from the U.S. Open. Djokovic ducked the media that day. Whether he was right to do it or not is a matter of opinion, but he could only make that choice because there were media there to duck. Without those traditional obligations, we wouldn’t even be able to say that Djokovic handled his mistake by skipping a press conference.

Exceptions are O.K., whether it’s for one day or one athlete’s career. But they should be exceptions. If Kyrie Irving decides he won’t talk about basketball for one day because his mind is on the Middle East, then hey, he is entitled to do that. The NBA is also entitled to ask players making $33 million a year to play basketball to answer questions about basketball.

Osaka is a thoughtful, likable, mesmerizing tennis player. She revealed far more about herself in the past week than she ever would in a press conference. We should wish her well and give her space. We should also hope that the vast majority of her fellow competitors continue to sit behind a microphone and answer whatever is asked.

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Osaka's Withdrawal Puts the Spotlight on Mental Health 

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