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There are no winners with Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open

We need to work on the relationship between athletes and the media.

Tennis: French Open Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open this weekend after the No. 2 seed was fined and threatened with future suspension from other Grand Slams after making the decision not to take part in post-match press conferences citing concerns for her mental health. Osaka’s decision prompted a standoff between the sport, and one of its brightest young stars — with the scrutiny reaching a point where Osaka decided she needed to walk away from the sport for a while.

Osaka needing to withdraw from the French Open for her own mental health is a crushing conclusion that benefits nobody. Osaka is taking time away from tennis as a result, the French Open is infinitely less exciting without her in it, and the sport is deciding that inflexible tradition is more important than its athletes.

Naomi Osaka tried to get out of in front of the situation. Instead of waiting and springing her lack of media participation while at Roland Garros, she tweeted last week that she would not participate in post-match press conferences, explaining her reasoning, and being open about how it affects her mental health. At the time she was prepared to be fined, but valued her mental health more than the money. It didn’t take long before the fines materialized, with Osaka being docked $15,000 for failing to appear after he first round on Sunday.

It’s well within Osaka’s rights to not take part in media availability. It’s within the French Open’s rights to fine her as a result. What happened next went a step further. A joint statement issued the by the French Open, Australian Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon was overflowing with language indicating that the mental health for athletes was of “the utmost concern,” but really, it wasn’t. By definition “utmost” means “most extreme” or “greatest,” but it was abundantly clear the biggest concern for the Grand Slams wasn’t Osaka’s well being, but the rules — because they threatened her with even further action.

“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).”

Talking about a commitment to mental health was nothing more than lip service when you take into account the rapidity in which the Grand Slams released the statement. It felt as if this had been sitting in drafts for days, ready to be posted as soon as Osaka’s fine was announced — with little effort actually being made to understand the athlete raising her concerns.

Shortly after the statement Osaka posted on Twitter that she was withdrawing from the tournament, feeling like she would be a distraction if she stayed in Paris and continued being under scrutiny. In it she explained her struggles with mental health further, which were happening at a time outsiders thought she was on top of the world.

“The truth is that I have suffered from long bouts of depression since the US Open 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”

Osaka went on to say that tennis media has mostly been very kind to her over the years. However, the pressure of simply turning up to press conferences causes her to suffer from anxiety, and that her decision was practicing self care. Osaka also explained that she wrote privately to the French Open, saying she was open to sitting down and discussing the issue further after the tournament was over.

There’s no doubt this is a complicated issue. Yes, the media needs stars like Osaka in order to write columns — but stars, and the sport need the media to promote the game. Especially for tennis, a fringe sport without organic appeal, needs writers to cover the sport to promote awareness. There is a huge benefit to fans to have athletes face scrutiny, and difficult questions in an environment where they can’t control the message. However, there also needs to be greater understanding, and care towards athletes who have explained why media availability taxes their mental health. There’s also a factor here that Osaka is able to absorb media fines, because she’s in a position of privilege where she can eat a $15,000 fine and move on, whereas a lot of other professional tennis players without large endorsement deals can’t have the luxury of skipping obligations and facing the consequences.

The issue of media availability is not a simple one, nor should it be treated as such. Yes, players essentially “sign up” for being questioned after matches when they enter a tournament, but there are unquestionably certain members of the media who make a living off trying to trap athletes in “gotcha” situations to be used for sound bytes, or pressure them into having an emotional response so they can later be depicted as “unhinged.” The discussion of athlete mental health from post-match interviews needs to begin with offering credentials only to reporters actually interested in telling the stories of the tournament, and getting answers about matches to serve their readers. Not those who serve only themselves by needling athletes while they are emotional and vulnerable, hoping they’ll blow up.

An honest discussion needs to take place about who on the media side is benefitting the sport, and who is harming athletes. If we hold athletes to the expectation that they have to attend press conferences after matches, so too should the media be held to the expectation they will act ethically.

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal was the best move for her, given the situation. It hurts everyone else. The French Open is less exciting as a result, fans will be deprived of watching one of the sport’s biggest stars compete. Tennis as a whole is less compelling without Osaka, and it remains to be seen whether the remaining players will face even more scrutiny and efforts by certain media members to make them snap, because there’s no longer Osaka to take much of the spotlight.

Tennis needs Osaka, especially as we approach a world where Serena Williams is no longer competing. The sport’s next big star is critical to the future success of the sport, and grand slam organizers know it. There needs to be an open, honest and critical look at the structure of media availability moving forward. It’s the only way to keep the sport alive, and thriving.