By now you know the story: Naomi Osaka, heir apparent to Serena Williams’ crown of dominance in professional tennis, withdrew from the French Open, one of the four largest tournaments in the world, earlier this week because the pressure of the tour and brutal behavior by tournament officials, fans, and the press was taking a horrible toll on her mental health.
Osaka’s decision revolved around a conflict with French Open officials about the press conferences that players do after matches, which Osaka said were causing her an enormous amount of anxiety and heightening the depression she had felt since beating Williams in an emotional U.S. Open final in 2018. She was right to withdraw, of course — I have played just enough competitive tennis to know that even the calmest and most serene athletes in the sport (not me) are only ever about four unforced errors away from complete mental collapse, and anything a player does to avoid that should be accepted without question. But rather than focus on Osaka’s personal decision, I think it’s worth taking another look at the media environment around professional sports, and the relationship journalism has with the athletes who play them.
Many journalists, myself included, get pissed off when someone won’t talk to them. There’s a feeling of entitlement that creeps into this work, that people should answer your questions and provide you with the information that you want. In some cases, this is valid — politicians and other public officials do have a duty to provide insight and transparency to the people they represent. They are often incredibly resistant to doing this, of course, which is why we have public records laws and whistleblower protections. You can tell a lot about how a given governmental body or administration feels about the First Amendment by how they interact with those laws.
None of this, of course, applies to professional sports. Athletes are forced to speak to the media, often compelled by fines or on-field repercussions, because doing so is good for the bottom line of their employer. In professional tennis, this is even less fair, as the athletes themselves are basically independent contractors who don’t actually work for the organizational body that governs them, but are still beholden to arbitrary contracts created to increase the amount of money that body, not the players, make.
That means there is a difference between a sports reporter and a political reporter. Any journalist’s job is to investigate and hold accountable the power structures at play in their chosen field or area of interest. In sports, this will almost always involve speaking to players. This is where the entitlement creeps in. That leads to obscenely dumb takes like “speaking to the press is part of an athlete’s job.” It’s convenient, perhaps, that teams and organizations force athletes to be available for interviews, just as it’s convenient that Jen Psaki makes herself available to the press more regularly than her predecessors in the Trump administration, but that doesn’t make either of these little pageants particularly useful for the actual goal of journalism. Forced athlete press conferences are even less important, because while Psaki is a direct avatar for an organization that wields immense power, Osaka isn’t. She’s just a 23-year-old woman who is extremely good at tennis. If a reporter wants her point of view for a story involving tennis, then it’s their job to develop a relationship with her like they would any other source and get her to trust them.
What most journalists who are stupidly upset over Osaka’s behavior seem not to realize is that it was intentional. In her first post announcing she would be skipping media appearances at the French Open, Osaka noted both that she has a “friendly relationship” with most journalists (the ones who have apparently done their jobs at securing trust and access with her), but that “if the organizations think they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re going to be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.” Osaka was forcing a fight over this, pushing back in the best way she could think at a policy that athletes have resented for years (Marshawn Lynch’s “Only here so I don’t get fined” protest in 2015 was another creative strategy toward the same end.) The powers that be in tennis saw this immediately, as all four grand slam tournaments released a statement threatening Osaka with future fines and penalties while simultaneously claiming that “mental health” was one of their top priorities for athletes. They knew that Osaka’s push for more humane contracts that didn’t enforce media appearances on stressed-out people who have devoted every fiber of their being to hitting a small object traveling over 100 miles per hour was a threat to their business model, so they came down on her with all the fury of a soulless corporation that could face a fraction of a percentage loss of revenue.
The lines, then, are very simple. On one side you have an individual pushing back at a power structure that is harming them. On the other side, you have the architects and rulers of that power structure attempting to compel said individual to conform. This is a conflict that every journalist should recognize, as interrogating these imbalances of power is the only point of our job. If you looked at it and came down on any side but the player’s, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.