One of the best tennis players in the world is sitting out one of the most important tournaments of the year.
Naomi Osaka of Japan, who at age 23 is ranked No. 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association and has four Grand Slam titles, withdrew from the French Open this week, a decision she said she made to prioritize her mental health.
The international sports establishment saw her decision as a stunning rebuke of the status quo. But it’s evidence, too, of the changing paradigms of what professional athletes, particularly women of color, are willing to accept from an international media whose treatment of said athletes often teeters from embarrassingly ignorant to blatantly sexist and racist.
“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.
Osaka rankled the tennis establishment last week when she said she wouldn’t participate in press during the French Open to protect her mental health – something she said sports organizations do not value when they force athletes to participate in press conferences.
In a message written on the iPhone Notes app, Osaka said, “If the organizations think they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation [sic] then I just gotta laugh.”
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.
On Monday, Osaka, in a note to fans and press, said she’d withdraw from the tournament.
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The outdated press conference model doesn’t serve athletes or media, experts say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, too, are a relic of a time before social media and ESPN and its successors, when the only way into an athlete’s psyche was to read through the rehearsed, measured responses they gave, or to hope for an outburst of emotion. Today, they’re “no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest-common-denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible,” wrote Guardian sports blogger Jonathan Liew.
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.
Osaka, in her initial message, said sitting for press conferences means answering questions that seed doubt in her mind or breaking down in front of a captive audience after a loss. That was something that happened in February to all-time great Serena Williams, who left a press conference early after a loss to Osaka in the semifinals of the Australian Open prompted reporters to question whether she would soon retire.
“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.
Athletes are getting more comfortable speaking openly about issues they care about, from mental health to the movements against anti-Black racism and anti-Asian racism – moves that might have harmed their careers just a few years earlier, she 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.
Her impressive physique has been derided and mocked, and critics often use it to pit her against White opponents like Maria Sharapova. One journalist at the 2018 French Open asked Williams about being intimidated by competitors – framed by a remark former President Donald Trump made about Williams being intimidated by Sharapova’s “supermodel good looks.”
The year before, an ESPN tennis analyst was fired after he used the word “gorilla” to describe Williams on air (though the analyst later said that he used the word “guerilla,” not “gorilla”).
And in 2018, an Australian comic artist published an offensive illustration of Williams, one that turned her enviable strength and trademark passion into a racist caricature, while a White, blonde opponent – meant to represent Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese – looked on helplessly.
“Osaka is 2 inches taller than Williams, but depicting her in this small, light-skinned way allows for the racist beast and child-like exaggeration of Williams, for whom racist media representations is a long-standing feature,” Razack and University of Toronto assistant professor Janelle Joseph wrote in a 2020 study.
Razack and Joseph wrote that Williams’ treatment by the international media is an example of “misogynoir,” a term coined by the scholar Moya Bailey that describes the intersection of anti-Black racism and misogyny that Black women experience.
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 m