The story of Naomi Osaka, the media and mental health has dominated the week and may prove to be one of the biggest stories of the year. It cuts to the heart of the relationship between players and fans, players and media, fans and sponsors, social media and so much more.
I have written and scrapped this story a number of times during the week and glad to have done so.
Here are my random thoughts on how the story has developed and why it will have a material impact on how sport tells its story in the future…
Naomi Osaka is a 23-year-old woman.
Naomi Osaka was born in Japan in 1997, she plays tennis for a living and resides in Beverly Hills, California
She made her debut on the WTA Tour at the age of 16, when most young girls are doing the Junior Cert or looking for a first part-time job.
She is the reigning US Open and Australian Open Tennis Champion
Last year she was the world’s top-earning female sports star earning a reported €50 million in endorsements and another €5 million from her tennis.
She suffers from social anxiety and feels uncomfortable with speaking in public.
It was both delightful but also slightly uncomfortable watching her speech after winning the Australian Open in February.
Since winning the US Open in 2018 she has suffered periods of depression
She announced in advance of the French Open, on social media, that she would not be participating in press conferences at the Championships
She said “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
That led to a pile on from journalists and others on social media accusing her of being too precious and not understanding the source of her wealth and profile.
Paul Kimmage, perhaps coloured by an awareness of sporting stars avoiding questions at press conferences, wrote a piece about the 21 press conferences Naomi Osaka had to do this year, suggesting it might not be the most onerous job in the world and concluding “This mental health stuff? I’m sure the constant licking must leave you with a rash but it’s not exactly the Spanish Inquisition, is it?”
Rafa Nadal was one of the many stars that also questioned whether her stance was right saying “I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, I mean, without the press, without the people who normally travel, who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, we probably will not be the athletes that we are today.”
The French open went on the offensive fining her $15,000 and joining the pile-on of criticism.
They probably all felt pretty bad when she withdrew from the tournament, on social media again, and revealed the actual extent of her mental health issues.
She is surrounded by well-paid professionals who coach her tennis, her physical fitness and manage her multiple contracts.
Why did none of them suggest that rather than go silent that she should do her own ‘media’ on social media, take the fine but still engage in a way that she was comfortable with?
Naomi Osaka has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, 600,000 more than the Official Roland Garros Account, 100,000 more than the BBC Sports account.
She recognised herself that she might have done things differently.
Naomi Osaka is still a 23-year-old woman who needs now to look after herself.
The questions it has raised about media (and through them fans) access to sporting stars will last longer than this one story.
The ‘model’ has grown into one of ‘access and stenography’ when multiple media personnel faithfully transcribe the largely ‘paint by numbers’ answers that stars will give in advance or straight after a sporting event.
These days most access to stars away from the event is managed through commercial partnerships.
The trade-off is a mention of the brand, the initiative or a campaign and the carrying of a picture.
Generally speaking, sporting stars are well rewarded in this bargain, and fans get to hear what they have said.
There is still uncertainty among sports stars and distrust of some journalist who they feel are out to trap them, Jim McGuinness said as much when talking to media this week.
In the days of long-form content and podcasts enabling good interviewers to go deeper and deliver more insight, the value of press conferences is diminishing. Rapidly.
Much of tabloid coverage of football in the UK is derived from social media posts from players or clubs and has been so for a number of years.
Players are paid to play, commentators to comment.
If players are expected to comment as part of ‘the contract’, then should commentators be asked to play?
No, that’s clearly ridiculous
OK, so what was the last post-match press conference you remember that did not involve pain and distress?
Across most of the world, the post or mid-game analysis of sport does not exist. The screen goes dark, or to advertising, as soon as the final whistle blows or the last point is played.
The analysis and the comment comes with the benefit of time, thought, and reflection.
Is that such a bad thing?
If you’ve watched a player wear branded gear over a three hour game of tennis or 72 holes of golf, how much additional value is there in them wearing a baseball cap with a logo for a two-minute interview after the event?
How much more value would there be if the post-match reaction after 24 hours of breathing space, was carried on a sponsor’s channels?
Now you’re just letting your own interest in the business side of sport make you lose the run of yourself.
When sport, commerce and media work in harmony, everybody benefits
The greatest value in sports journalism lies in uncovering the story that has not been seen.
When was the last time that came about in a post-match press conference?
Sporting stars by the nature of what they do, the stakes which they play for and the ultimate disposability of the individual to the sport puts them under a set of pressures that most of us will never understand.
We should be better as a society than to treat them as there purely for our entertainment, even if it is us that pays for the Beverly Hills mansion.
Those who make public comment that is hurtful do so and move on.
The impact they can leave behind lasts longer
Sporting stars do not though have carte blanche to use ‘mental health’ as a reason for not performing. If it is a problem it needs to be treated and managed.
The sun still rises and the world keeps turning but we need to learn from when things go wrong and make sure that we are doing things as well as we can for everyone involved.
That includes the media in all its forms, the players and those who advise them, the fans, the tournament organisers and the sponsors.
That does not require a global summit but just a number of like-minded people getting together and building out a better future from the bottom.
Change happens not in a blinding flash but one small step at a time.
The Tennis media has already moved on to Roger Federer getting upset over towels.
We live in a world where attention is minimal and the next thing is always looking like the best thing.
We should all be kinder before we rush to judgement.
Naomi Osaka has won 54 Grand Slam tennis matches in her career.
Sport for Business Partners