“I believe the ability for athletes to control their own narrative has slightly shifted,” said Sabrina Razack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto who’s published works about the treatment of Osaka by the media. But despite the advances, some media narratives perpetuate “racist and sexist stereotypes” of professional athletes, she added.
Roland-Garros, another name for the French Open, responded by fining her $15,000 for declining to speak to the media and threatening her with expulsion.
Osaka’s withdrawal wasn’t done with malice or disrespect — it was a decision she made in her own interest, and she chose her mental well-being over immediate success. But it will reverberate throughout sports and could prompt the powers that be to rethink how athletes and the press interact, said Guy Harrison, an assistant professor of sports media at the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time that an athlete has held the media’s feet to the fire as it relates to athletes’ mental health,” he said of Osaka.
The outdated press conference model doesn’t serve athletes or media, experts say
There was a time when athletes relied on traditional media to build their brands and cement their statuses. Digital advancements have returned power to the athlete, but many professional sports organizations are still “set in their ways” when it comes to old media practices, Harrison said.
Press conferences today can be boring — as athletes run through the motions or try to mask their malaise — or almost punitively personal, Liew wrote in a Monday blog. Athletes young and old are “expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting,” he said.
“I believe the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it,” Osaka said.
Osaka’s withdrawal announcement was proof of the power athletes have and the discretion with which they can wield it, Razack said.
“The racial uprising of last year cleaved open a crack that somewhat enabled a safer space for athletes to speak about race, racial issues and engage with different forms of identity expression,” she said.
The pandemic has also changed the way the press interacts with sports stars, giving them less direct access by holding press conferences over Zoom and banning locker room access, Harrison said — something some teams may continue even when pandemic protocols are fully retired.
“As athletes are finding their voices, that’s adding a new wrinkle to athlete access, as well,” he said.
Naomi, Serena and the discriminatory portrayal of Black women athletes
Osaka has had more than her fair share of intrusive moments with the media. But even before she played professionally, she saw the way international sports media often tore down her rival and idol, Serena Williams.
Since making her professional debut in 1995, Williams, widely considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, regardless of gender or sport, has been maligned for her appearance, on-court demeanor and game in subtle or blatantly racist ways.
That 2018 US Open incident in particular placed both Osaka and Williams in uncomfortable positions: Williams was criticized for arguing with an umpire and breaking a racket, and when Osaka won in a remarkable upset, she was positioned as the meek, quiet counterpart to Williams’ irascible sore loser, Razack and her co-author wrote.
What should’ve been a celebratory moment for Osaka was instead tense and unsettling. Osaka broke down on the court after she beat Williams, who comforted her as crowds booed. After the match, she was asked questions about Williams that reinforced stereotypes of the “unruly Black woman,” the authors wrote, and “reduced [Naomi] to a victim of unfair treatment” by Williams.
Osaka was alternately the villain and victim of the match. She revealed this week she’s experienced “bouts of depression” ever since the 2018 US Open.
“I have not seen a change at all,” he said. “I think the relationship between the media and sports organizations … is a symbiotic one. It’s in their interests to come together and find a happy medium where we get access to some athletes because we still want to tell stories, but still make athletes comfortable, so we’re cognizant of racial and gendered equality.” se
The reporter continued: “But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American too.”
Other athletes have regained control
For every Piers Morgan, who called Osaka a “petulant little madam” and “arrogant spoiled brat,” there was a Williams. Osaka’s competitor told reporters this week she wished she could “give [Osaka] a hug because I know what it’s like.”
Athletes are not beholden to the press, nor is the press beholden to provide glowing reports about athletes. But there should be a balance, Harrison said, in which members of the media can do their best work without compromising the humanity of the people they’re covering.
It makes sense from a business perspective, too, for organizations like Roland-Garros to balance the demands of athletes and the press, he said — as one of tennis’ biggest stars, Naomi’s absence will be felt this week.
“If you don’t honor these athletes’ wishes, you’re not going to have the best athletes,” he said.
Osaka, Williams, James, Woods and Lynch are more in control of their narrative than before, and even willing to break rules if it means putting their mental health and their game before the needs of the press and professional organizations. Their fans will follow them whether they appear in a press conference or not. Sports media will have to find a way forward with athletes’ cooperation, Harrison said, or be left behind.