This Naomi Osaka drama is complex. Then again, when you consider three things, it’s simple.
(1) Anti-media athletes? Overrated.
(2) Mental health issues? Serious.
(3) Best solution? Dan Hawkins.
Let’s start with . . .
No. 1: Overrated
Surely, you’ve heard of Osaka. In case you’ve been in a news blackout for the past seven days, she’s trending right now. She pulled out of the French Open over the combination of preparing for some of the world’s best women tennis players, losing $15,000 through skipping her media obligations at the event and trying to keep her mind from ugly thoughts.
You’ve probably never heard of Johnnie LeMaster.
In 1980, when I covered the Giants for the San Francisco Examiner, LeMaster was their starting shortstop. He told me that August he quit talking to the media in April. I never noticed, and neither did anybody else. Not only were a slew of his teammates willing to speak, but the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t fall into San Francisco Bay due to LeMaster’s silence.
That’s when I discovered what I already knew: Who cares whether an athlete speaks or not?
Yeah, the media is the fans’ connection to their heroes, along with to their teams, but that’s so 20th century. Courtesy of personal websites, complete with PR folks disguised as reporters, and social media accounts with thousands of followers, athletes and teams keep moving away from traditional media.
The wiser ones stay closer to LeBron James territory, which involves doing your own thing while continuing to speak often and strongly to everybody involved with print, cyberspace and the airways.
Still, LeMaster was ahead of his time.
Osaka is a bit more famous than LeMaster, though. She’s ranked No. 2 in the world among women tennis players, and she said last Wednesday through social media she wishes to avoid reporters for anxiety reasons.
That’s fine. The Williams sisters always are willing to pontificated about their greatestness around serves and smiles. Well, such is true, even though Serena bolted her Australian Open press conference earlier this year in tears over questions about her future after a loss.
Ash Barty still talks, and she’s the No. 1-ranked singles player for the Women’s Tennis Association. Others also are accommodating to reporters on the circuit, ranging from Simona Halep to Coco Gauff.
The bottom line for my profession: Losing quotes from Osaka or anyody else isn’t that serious (you know, unless King James shuts up).
Speaking of serious . . .
No. 2: Serious
Mental health issues are real. Such a thing even applies to a splendid tennis player of 23, with the outward appearance of sunshine everywhere in her life, starting with her bank account.
According to Forbes, Osaka spent May 2019 to May 2020 earning $37.4 million from prize money and endorsements. That was $1.4 million more than the esteemed Serena Williams, and Osaka shattered Maria Sharapova’s old record for a year of $29.7 million in 2015.
Even so, Osaka said her fight with depression began after she won her first major at the 2018 US Open over Serena, her idol. The pro-Williams crowd booed during the trophy ceremony before Serena wrapped her arm around a crying Osaka and told those jeering to stifle.
Osaka said her mental state worsened in the aftermath, and she blamed much of it on quetions from reporters, saying, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give [the media] the best answers I can.”
It isn’t just Osaka with a troubled soul among athletes. Swimmer Michael Phelps won 28 Olympic medals (including 23 of them gold), but he said he was so depressed that he was “extremely thankful” he didn’t commit suicide. Cleveland Cavailers forward Kevin Love has spent his NBA career sharing his mental highs and lows, telling The Players’ Tribune last year, “It felt like I was on a deserted island by myself, and it was always midnight.”
None of this is new. It’s just more open now, and that’s good.
So is the solution.
No. 3: Dan Hawkins
These are facts . . .
That’s just a brief sampling of what most sports leagues and major events require when it comes to athletes and the media.
There also are those huge salaries. You have the top five athletes in the world on Forbes’ list (Conor McGregor at $180 million, Lionel Messi at $130 million, Cristiano Ronaldo at $120 million, Dak Prescott at $107.5 million and James at $96.5 million), and then you have the hundreds and thousands of those who won’t be standing in soup lines anytime soon.
What helps sports leagues and teams pay those salaries is the revenue they receive from media outlets who send reporters to places to (ahem) talk to athletes involved with sports leagues and teams.
Which means, if the media pressure is too much on you as an athlete for whatever reason, you can:
- Work in the smallest minority to force the biggest majority to change those collective bargaining agreements (good luck with that).
- You can ask leaders of high-profile events — such as major tennis tournaments like the French Open — to make it less attractive for local, national and international media to give their events publicity by allowing reporters less access to participants (good luck with that).
- You can can take the Dan Hawkins approach.
Hawkins was the University of Colorado football coach who fumed after an anonymous parent complained players were getting only a two-week break from their offseason conditioning program instead of three.
“Play intramurals, brother.”
To translate: If the mental stress is that bad for Osaka and others, especially when it comes to dealing with the media, it’s time for them to try to make all of those millions doing something else.