Opinion: What We Can Learn From Naomi Osaka’s Courageous Decision

On Sunday, four-time tennis champion Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for flouting her “contractual media obligations” in skipping a post-match news conference at the French Open. Osaka had earlier revealed her internal battle with anxiety when forced to conduct her media interview obligations. Osaka explained that questions she would repeatedly get asked by the media sowed doubt in her mind. To protect her own mental and emotional health, she explained, she wouldn’t take part, adding that she would gladly pay any fine and suggested the money be donated to mental health charities.  Despite this, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Osaka received a warning from all four Grand Slam tournaments that she would face penalties for her decision, including disqualification, suspension, and a default loss if she proceeded to avoid the media again. After Osaka skipped her obligatory news conference following her opening round victory against Patricia Maria Tig. Organisers of the the French Open were unhappy and once again threatened to fine her and remove her from the tournament. As far as they were concerned, tennis players are contractually obligated to partake in interviews with the news press, as all players competing at the French Open agree to conduct the press interviews if they are playing in the tournament. In a move to defuse the situation, Osaka removed herself from the competition. Following this sequence of events, everyone has had their say. On the one hand, people agree with Osaka’s decision and have expressed support for the 23-year-old’s executive decision. Yet, on the other, people feel it is a publicity stunt. Osaka made $55m last year, $50m from endorsements outside of tennis and $5m from tennis itself – she actually doesn’t need the publicity like other tennis players. Likewise, the $15,000 fine is incomparable to the millions she’s made last year. The tennis star didn’t mind paying the fine and even suggested that her fine would be used as a charitable donation to a mental health cause. Still, the issue is less about whether the No. 2 ranked player could afford to pay the fine and more about the rationale behind Osaka’s decision. 
Prior to the tournament, on May 26, Osaka tweeted “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” We often forget that athletes, like other living beings, deal with stress and get overwhelmed just like anyone else. Though they constantly put their bodies on the line, they are not these superhuman figures we expect them to be but the same as anyone else.     Osaka then tweeted the following statement after announcing her withdrawal from the tournament:

— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
Other athletes have spoken up in the past about their experiences in dealing with the media and press in the past and the pressures they’ve felt to please others, and stand in solidarity with Osaka.  The issue that we need to focus on is not only that Osaka was singled out or fined, but the fact that she felt need to apologize for her own wellbeing. Why did she feel the need to justify her mental health and apologize if she has offended people? For women, especially women of colour, we often feel the need to explain and justify the things that happen to humans. What does Osaka’s justification tell other girls like herself? Personally, I did not feel that Osaka should have explained herself any further either than the first statement. Tennis fans also took to Twitter and brought up the many instances where the French Open mistreated Black women in the past. One of these instances include not allowing Serena Williams to wear a catsuit meant to help prevent blood clots after giving birth back in 2018, though it was acceptable for former tennis star Anne White to wear a catsuit at Wimbledon in 1985. In addition to the discrepancies between players of different races, sexism still arises in the sport. Over the weekend, the Tennis Federation’s president Gilles Moretton, who allowed for Osaka to be fined, excused tennis superstar Roger Federer to withdraw from the tournament to preserve his knee health. and stated that this is his way of preserving himself. After Federer’s decision to withdraw, Moretton stated that “he has too much respect for Federer” and with Federer nearing 40 there’s a greater need for him to “preserve himself.” This switch in empathy for Federer that was not given to Osaka and other women athletes shows the double standards between men and women in sports.  Once again, the French Open has demonstrated their constant disregard for the health of women athletes, especially those of high caliber such as Osaka and Williams. There’s a truly unfair treatment that women athletes undergo. If girls see that not even the most talented athletes are respected, what is this teaching them? Overall, there’s a lot to be learned from this situation and Osaka’s courageous decision is commendable. 
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