Naomi Osaka: The case for mental health

Naomi Osaka: The case for mental health

The world number two tennis player, Naomi Osaka, has prompted both criticism and support after withdrawing from the French Open to look after her mental health.

Osaka’s withdrawal from the competition came after winning her first match of the tournament but then refusing to do a post-match interview with the press – a contractual obligation every tennis player is bound to. As punishment for refusing to speak to the press, Osaka was fined $15,000 and was threatened in a joint statement released by Grand Slam organisers that she could “face expulsion from the tournament if she continued to avoid them”.

The following day, Osaka released a statement on social media, announcing to fans that she was withdrawing from the French Open to “exercise self-care” as she was “already feeling vulnerable and anxious”. In the statement, she also revealed that since the US Open in 2018, she has “suffered long bouts of depression”. The vulnerable and honest statement came as both a shock to fans and the media and split opinions between support and criticism.

The decision to leave the French Open is both upsetting but understandable and Osaka deserves nothing but support at this time. It’s an unfortunate decision that she felt she had no other option but to leave the competition, and there were no provisions in place so she could continue to participate in the competition and not be obligated to speak to the press. In many ways, her withdrawal from the competition is a bold statement to send a clear message about mental health to large organisations such as the Grand Slam tournaments. However, the reaction to her departure is an example of how the world may claim to be but still isn’t ready to have real, difficult conversations about mental health.

 

The loudest criticism has come from controversial commentator Piers Morgan, who was recently dismissed from Good Morning Britain following his disparaging comments surround Meghan Markle’s statements on her mental health in her interview with Oprah. In a Twitter rampage, Morgan tweeted a series of opinions, calling Osaka “pathetic” and “world sport’s petulant little madam”.

Despite his attempts to fully articulate his argument for why Osaka should do interviews with the press, it seems as though his rage is misplaced and reductive of the issue at hand here. The criticism should be placed upon the tennis associations and tournaments that have put Osaka in a non-negotiable position which has forced her to withdraw rather than being given sufficient mental health support and a needed break away from the media.

Some may argue that celebrities and stars who are contractually obligated to speak to the media should be fined or reprimanded for not upholding their end of the contract, but Osaka’s statement shows the issues at hand are deeper than a signature on a piece of paper. To a certain extent, there are professions that require media and press coverage in order for a project to be successful. For example, film stars who are contractually obligated to do press tours to promote their films – their film’s success relies on the media coverage they generate. Various professions in the arts industry demand and require intense media coverage to generate audiences, therefore making their projects profitable and a commercial success. However, sport is a sector that is exempt from this chain of profit. For example, Tom Cruise is only successful because people watch his films and pay to see his work. However, tennis players do not rely on media coverage or spectators in order to be successful at their sport.

Naomi Osaka can still be a talented tennis player, who is successful in her profession without speaking to the press or having anybody watching her play – the pandemic has helped proved this. The same goes for footballers who have played in empty stadiums. Football teams can still play, win, lose and lift cups, with or without the media – the media does not make the sport successful. Now, this is not to say that artists such as musicians or actors cannot also withdraw from press junkets for mental health reasons. Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the tournament is an example that there is no job in the world that should be prioritised above an individual’s mental health.

Osaka is not the first person to be scrutinised for her actions on and off the court and she won’t be the last. I believe her scrutiny is, for a number of reasons, predominantly surrounding her gender and her skin colour.

Tennis has always been a sport that has polarised and separated experiences for both its male and female sports stars, but most recently in particular with black female sportspeople compared to their white, male counterparts. In 2018, during the US Open Final, Serena Williams shared a heated exchange with the umpire who accused her of trying to communicate with her coach in the stands. After slamming her racket on the ground, the umpire issued a point to her opponent, Osaka, to reprimand Williams’ covert outrage. If this had been a male player, such as Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer there would be reports of his passionate and valid reaction to the umpire’s ruling. Yet Williams was publicly shamed for her reaction and was fined thousands of dollars as a punishment. One doesn’t have to look far to see the difference in treatment of male and female tennis stars, particularly black tennis players who are regularly gaslighted and subjugated to misogynistic tropes, both in the sport and in the media. Shortly after the game, tennis legend, Billie Jean King highlighted the differing treatment extended to both men and women in sport.

I can only imagine the barrage of questions sports stars face after matches, especially after they have lost. I also dread to envisage how many of these questions are repetitive or may further infuriate or dampen the spirits of a player who has just lost. However, it needs to be said that the media coverage of female and male tennis players differs and the mentalities and attitudes to male tennis stars are starkly different compared to women. It was not long ago that Novak Djokovic suggested that male tennis players should “fight for more (money) because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more”.

This comment came on the back of Raymond More’s comments, (chief executive of Indian Wells), where he said: “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

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These comments are snippets of the ongoing and raging sexism rooted in the foundations of sport, especially in tennis. Women are not only navigating sexism and racism on the court but also behind the scenes after their match finishes. Racism and misogyny are rife in society, so there’s no surprise that it is also present in sports such as tennis.

Ignoring the issue and neglecting the mental well-being of sportspeople allows journalists to abuse their platforms to gaslight female tennis players of colour in their post-match interviews. Osaka is not highlighting a new issue but is standing up to a deep-rooted, corrosive topic that has been long neglected and enabled by large tennis associations. It’s disheartening to see that instead of taking this opportunity to raise awareness and allow a space for Osaka to continue in the competition without engaging with the press, the tournaments have punished her.

Mental health and well-being are clearly a topic used for clout purposes rather than an epidemic that is in dire need of attention. It was only a short while ago that Megan Markle was being hounded in the press following her decision to step down as an active member of the Royal Family and instead seek a life of independent financial maintenance and stability. The breakaway occurred after Markle began to feel like she “didn’t want to be alive anymore” following a turbulent and hostile experience with the British media. Similarly, to Osaka, Markle’s health was trivialised and invalidated to further undermine the well-being and vulnerability of Black women. While Markle and Osaka are both professionally different, the issues at hand stem from the same place – if these two women were white, their mental health would not be trivialised or sensationalised the way it has been.

Osaka, Williams and Markle are three examples of women who refuse to tolerate and accept jobs or roles at the expense of their own well-being or mental health and happiness. They are also examples of Black women who simply seek the care and respect that their male or female white counterparts receive regularly. The outpouring of rage from the general public and the media alike is indicative of a society that is still uncomfortable confronting the realities of mental health.

It’s trendy to talk about mental health during mental health awareness week but the minute somebody’s mental health inconveniences us, we decide how important their mental health is. Clearly mental health and mental well-being is a topic that everyone wants to talk about until the conversation is surrounding the well-being of a Black woman.

The conversation in changing gender and racial attitudes needs to start happening both on and off-centre court, not when it’s trendy or cool to care. Osaka is another example of a woman of colour who we, as a society, have neglected. Instead of tearing her down or condemning her, we should be applauding Osaka for the story that she was brave enough to tell and reprimanding the tennis associations who chose not to listen.

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