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The Nuance of the Naomi Osaka Story

Osaka withdrew from the French Open after declining to sit for the tournament’s mandated press conferences. Does her decision affect the future of sports journalism?

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Before Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open on Monday, she offered a critique of sportswriters. The people waiting for her at post-match press conferences? They ask the same question over and over. And over. And over.

A small irony of the Osaka story is that it ought to make reporters ask two questions. First: “Should the French Open have forced Osaka to show up at press conferences?” Second: “Should we try to compel athletes to talk to reporters, ever?” I’d argue those questions are not repetitive. They are different. My answers are “no” and “yes, mostly, I think,” in that order.

Last Wednesday, Osaka announced she wouldn’t be talking to reporters at the French Open. Those repeat questions? They had a way of making her struggles to win on clay courts into a thing, her sister Mari wrote on a since-deleted Reddit post. It was also clear Osaka didn’t love the questions reporters asked players after they lost. As USA Today’s Dan Wolken noted, Osaka has been losing matches early in tournaments after winning the last two Grand Slam events.

Osaka put forth the idea that postgame press conferences aren’t mere annoyances for athletes. They can adversely affect their mental health. Though Osaka didn’t say it until withdrawing, she later revealed that she gets “huge waves of anxiety” when speaking to reporters and has coped with depression since 2018.

The mere mention of the words “mental health” ought to have excused Osaka from doing press conferences at the French Open. A French official might think—in fact, clearly did think—“well, she agreed to the rules” or “but what about precedent?” If you value the athletes who play in your tournament, you ought to trust them on this stuff. An accounting can wait until after the tournament.

Tennis officials didn’t wait. After fining Osaka $15,000 for skipping a press conference, as she expected, officials from four tennis federations threatened to kick her out of the French Open. They raised the possibility of suspending her from future Grand Slam tournaments too. They were teasing a draconian standard: no talk, no play.

I like to go to bat for sportswriters when leagues try to restrict their access. Yet I can’t get my mind around the idea of making an athlete’s ability to take the court contingent on her willingness to talk to us. I can’t even imagine using that as a threat.

Let’s say Kyrie Irving decides to skip his media obligations this week, as he has twice this season. Should he not get a chance to finish off the Boston Celtics? Six years ago, Marshawn Lynch made a merry sport of trolling reporters during Super Bowl week. Roger Goodell didn’t sideline Lynch for the single biggest moment of his career. That was up to Pete Carroll.

A reporter can think athletes ought to be available for comment without thinking their comments are what make them available to be an athlete. If any reporter supports a “no talk, no play” policy, please get in touch.

That brings us to the second question. Should we try to compel athletes to talk to us, through rules and fines and lesser measures? That question is bigger and murkier.

Reporters who don’t cover sports are amazed by mandatory media obligations. Politicians flee from reporters in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol; business leaders bury reporters with press releases; George Clooney doesn’t want to come on your podcast. Thanks to media obligations, we sportswriters have the chance to walk up to the most famous athletes in the world and—at least in theory—ask any question we want.

At events like the French Open, this opportunity may not be especially enriching. There’s little chance of intimacy when a press conference is held in a big room and broadcast on TV. The athlete is under no obligation to give helpful answers. “We don’t *want* press conferences,” The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler tweeted yesterday. “We want to talk to people in person, like human beings.”

“Is there not a better way of doing this?” asked The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew. The press conference was the better, more athlete-friendly way. As sports got more popular in the U.S., leagues handed out more and more media credentials. To keep reporters from smothering athletes at their lockers, interviews were moved behind a podium. It gave athletes breathing room, literally and figuratively. It also gave them more control over the exchanges.

Press conferences at the French Open are among the worst venues in which to ask an athlete a question. They’re also vastly preferable to not being able to ask a question at all.

At the French Open, reporters get a few minutes to quiz an athlete. In the U.S., at least before the pandemic, reporters got more time. The leagues have rules that mandate open clubhouses and shootaround availabilities that stretch throughout the year. No country forces athletes to talk to reporters like we do.

Why? Well, I could riff on “accountability” here. But the real reason leagues require athletes to show up for press conferences is they want reporters to show up too. They want a never-ending content stream that will yield more coverage for the league.

The reporters get something out of the deal too. If athletes stopped showing up, it would be harder to figure out basic information about what happened in a game or match. Reporters would be left to harvest a thought from social media rather than ask a question. The rare aha moment—think Tua Tagovailoa talking about his discomfort calling plays the other day—would be almost nil. They would lose the facial expressions and gestures and small word choices that tell a story, even when an athlete is determined not to.

“I think everyone in the media is the bridge that connects the athlete with the public,” the Reds’ Joey Votto told writer C. Trent Rosecrans last year, “and without that close proximity, I don’t personally think you get that human component.”

It’s probably overstating things to say athletes would stop talking to the media if they weren’t compelled to. Some would. A larger group would disappear strategically, after big losses or during thorny moments with their contracts. Just when we need them.

Without obligatory appearances, media interactions with the stars would increasingly become advertorials, as they already have in the U.K., where even good newspapers trade product plugs for interviews. In such a universe, The Last Dance is probably the best-case scenario. Osaka talked to Wowow, a Japanese station she has a business relationship with, even as she passed on the press conference.

As French officials showed, these rules weren’t made to deal with mental health issues like the ones Osaka talked about. Moreover, as salaries get bigger, the whole idea of an athlete flinching at a fine seems ridiculous. The $35,000 the NBA fined Irving last month amounts to about 0.1 percent of his 2020-21 salary.

But it’s worth noting that, minus the usual opt-outs, most stars still show up for press conferences rather than pay the fines. Some like talking to reporters. Some have figured out how to get reporters to do their bidding. Some hate reporters but have mastered the art of saying nothing for a few minutes. If there’s a case for these rules, it may be that they are now less like rules and more like norms.

Take the case of Serena Williams. When asked about Osaka this weekend, Williams offered empathy: “You have to let her handle it the way she wants to in the best way she can.” That quote was given at a post-match press conference. Here’s an athlete who needs nothing from reporters agreeing to play by increasingly rickety rules. Williams was entertaining our questions, repetitive as they may be.