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Tennis Finds Itself at the Nexus of the Mental Health Crisis

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after declining to talk to the media and getting fined for it. Now that its biggest star is out for the tournament, tennis has to confront some tough questions about how to move forward.

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“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

That’s the answer you hate when your parents say it. You hate when your teachers say it. You hate when your boss says it. And the reason you hate it is because it’s the worst answer to any question. We used to own slaves in this country. Should we still do that because we used to? Of course not. People used to smoke in the car with babies, should we still? Nope. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is an oppressive, outdated model of thinking that far too many people (older people in positions of authority, to be specific) lean on to make decisions. And tennis is no exception.

Before the 2021 French Open, Naomi Osaka came out and said she wouldn’t be participating in her media responsibilities so she could focus on her mental health. She noted that press conferences “bring doubt into our minds and I’m not going to subject myself to people that doubt me”. She also talked about how she has been battling depression since 2018, and wanted to just focus on tennis this week at Roland Garros.

Predictably, Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping out on the media after her first round match, but then was threatened removal from the tournament and future suspensions if she continued to not talk to the press. Osaka then withdrew from the tournament, saying “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”.

So now what?

We’re at a breaking point in society. The tension that this country has experienced over the past 15 months can only be matched by those of the Civil War era, forcing us all to ask a lot of tough questions. And sports has been one of the battleground areas; what role do athletes play in social justice? Should sports be political? Should basketball players just shut up and dribble?

The answer is, of course, no. Athletes are some of the most influential people on the planet, and they absolutely should be leading social justice movements. With their platform, they can quite literally change the world. Anyone who thinks that athletes need to stay in their lane and just play is outdated and quickly losing their place in this world. If you change the channel because the NBA has a commercial for Black Lives Matter, they don’t want you watching their product anyway. And neither do the real fans of the game.

While the role of sports in social justice is black and white, the role of sports in mental health is a blended shade of the color gray.

Osaka was open and vulnerable on her bout with depression, and we need to respect that and support her in any way we can. Mental health has taken a downward spiral with the meteoric rise of social media, and it can’t be brushed off like it would have been a decade prior. Naomi Osaka was perfectly within her right to not talk to the media at the French Open if it reduced her anxiety and made her more comfortable doing what she loves.

But tennis was also right to fine her. Osaka plays professional tennis willingly, no one forced her to do so. Part of the responsibilities of professional tennis players is to talk to the media. The media provides a bridge between the players and the fans, relaying a human element that makes players more like humans and less like a zoo exhibit. The media helps advance and promote the sport, which in turn helps the players make more money. Where tennis went too far was to threaten suspension, which begs the question; where do we go from here?

Tennis finds itself at an intriguing crossroads in sports history. They can dig their heels into the clay, refuse to budge on their country-club rules and beat down Osaka into doing press conferences, which would have one of two outcomes; either she will do press conferences and be forced to suffer anxiety and be unhappy, or they risk driving the best player in the world (sorry Serena, you had a great 15 years but there’s a new queen in Wimbledon) out of the sport, which would be a disaster and an indictment on the sport as a whole.

Or, the sport can work with Osaka and try to find a new precedent. They can try and figure out a solution that allows Osaka to talk with the media and fulfill those responsibilities in a way that reduces her anxiety and makes her feel more comfortable in doing so. When Osaka was initially fined, she noted that she hoped her fines would go toward mental health awareness organizations.

Osaka isn’t the first athlete to speak out against the media. In 2013, Marshawn Lynch famously acted out to the press, answering every question with the iconic line “I’m just here so I don’t get fined”.

Before the 2020-21 NBA season, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving was fined $25K for calling the media “pawns” and refused to talk to them because he felt “used for his artistry”. So this is not a new phenomenon. The difference being the NFL didn’t threaten to take the star running back out of the Super Bowl, nor did the NBA threaten to take out a star guard from the playoffs.

Athletes sign up for the fishbowl lifestyle. They get paid millions upon millions to play a kids game, and the criticism and praise go hand in hand. The media gives the fans a peek behind the curtain, and helps generate the revenue that the players so thoroughly enjoy. And yet players are people too, and they suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues just like everyone else. To Osaka and many other athletes, the media provides a large source of those issues.

Tennis has an opportunity to lead the charge in sports-media relations and create a better environment for everyone involved, and foster a better platform for athletes to talk to the press in a safe and thoughtful manner. In a world that is rapidly changing and adjusting to social justice issues, tennis can be at the forefront of mental health support in sports. Or they can do what they’ve always done, because that’s the way they’ve always done it. Let’s hope they choose the former.

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