Naomi Osaka’s Withdrawal From French Open Begs Questions About Balance Between Mental Health and Media Obligations

Naomi Osaka, currently the world’s No. 2 player in women’s tennis, withdrew from the French Open one day after being fined for skipping her post-match media availability. Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam champion who has been open about her mental health challenges. Before the French Open, Osaka stated via social media she would not participate in press conferences while in Paris.

Officials at Roland Garros, site of the French Open, issued a statement on Sunday that professed commitment to athletes’ well-being. The same report also said she had been fined $15,000 and could face further penalties. The threat of defaulting from the tournament was explicitly spelled out.

Osaka is not the first athlete to cite mental health concerns for not addressing media scrums. Basketball star Kyrie Irving has done the same thing. Athletes have refused for years to speak to the media for a variety of reasons. But Osaka’s withdraw begs an important question.

Does media availability outweigh athletes’ mental health?

In her statement withdrawing from the French Open, Naomi Osaka cited her desire that the controversy did not supersede the competition itself.

“I never wanted to be a distraction, and I accept that my timing was not ideal, and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 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.”

Naomi Osaka

Kyrie Irving’s situation has been similar. Irving takes a break from playing for personal reasons. Fans and members of the media go into attack mode. Being blunt, Irving isn’t the first person in the history of humankind (or even sports) to take a personal day. Irving warrants criticism for not keeping team management in the loop, to be sure, but that doesn’t invalidate his challenges.

We tend to laud athletes who can play through outside concerns. That fits the old-fashioned “the show must go on” mentality. As a society, we in large numbers keep saying the right things about mental health awareness. Then we, in large numbers, do the exact opposite.

French Open officials go full passive-aggressive on Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open
Naomi Osaka of Japan conducts an on-court interview wearing a mask after her first-round matchat the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament. | Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

After her first-round match, Naomi Osaka spoke to a courtside reporter before skipping the post-match press conference. The French Open responded by posting a since-deleted tweet. The tweet featured photos of four other players in the tournament at their press conferences. A statement accompanied it, “They understood the assignment.”

Good for those players. They were able to speak comfortably with the press after their respective matches. But two aspects of this ring true. First, none of those players is Naomi Osaka. Secondly, no one can speak with any sense of certainty about what Osaka is feeling.

Attacking Osaka was wrong. The act of deleting the tweet after the backlash ensued displays, at some level, an admission of wrongdoing. But when it comes to mental health, too many of us continue to blast first and think later.

Like Osaka, Kyrie Irving hasn’t hidden his mental health concerns

Kyrie Irving was in the spotlight again following Game 4 of the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics. Irving appeared to stomp the Celtics’ logo at center court as he left the floor. Boston Police charged a fan for throwing a water bottle at Irving. At his media availability, Irving spoke at length about the turbulent relationship between fans and athletes, per USA Today.

“It’s unfortunate that sports have come to a lot of this kind of crossroad where you’re seeing a lot of old ways come up, it’s been that way in history in terms of entertainment and performers and sports for a long period of time. It’s just underlying racism and treating people like they’re in a human zoo — throwing stuff at people, saying things. There’s a certain point where it gets to be too much.”

Kyrie Irving

Coupled with sports organizations losing billions of dollars during the pandemic, getting free media is vital. It’s the 21st century. Most athletes interact with fans via social media.

Is the most effective way to facilitate communication between athletes and the sporting public to subject them to questions that can drone on nearly infinitely?

But at some point, sports organizations need to decide whether they will be genuinely concerned about the mental health of their athletes. Paying lip service and feigning concern no longer cuts it.