By Oli Mawdsley
In her young career, Naomi Osaka has virtually done it all. At the mere age of 23, she has already won four grand slams and is the current world number two in tennis. She is the top earning sportswoman in the world and despite being naturally shy and introverted, has used her status to draw attention and support the fight against racial injustice. For someone so young, she is absolutely remarkable and a true inspiration to everyone. The world is at her feet. However, like anyone else, she too has vulnerabilities. Her withdrawal from this year’s French Open for the sake of prioritising her mental health is a monumental moment for the entirety of sport. This announcement came after threats of being kicked out after she opted to avoid journalists. This brings us all to question whether there is enough support for all sportsmen and women when they encounter mental health issues, and also the impact of the press. Someone of this standing displaying her vulnerability will have a huge impact on the topic of mental health moving forward, especially in sport.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian, having had his own battles with depression, has said that it is a game changer. As well as Phelps, stars who have voiced their support for Osaka include Will Smith and Lewis Hamilton. It is perhaps overdue that such focus has been put upon the mental wellbeing of both young sporting superstars and sportsmen and women as a whole. While these stars may have all the talent in the world, what separates them from the rest is their mental strength to get over the line and reach their goals. However, even they can have their vulnerabilities. The pressure which professional sport can bring is unimaginable to those who have not experienced it. In recent years, more and more sporting stars have opened up about their mental health struggles. In cricket, this includes Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott and most recently, current England spinner Dom Bess. Bess made his England debut aged 20, but has admitted he would break down in the changing room before coming out to bat for his county at the time - Somerset - due to anxiety continuing on from school. Should there be more help and support in place for current sporting stars? Absolutely. No one is prepared to deal with the pressures and expectations that the sporting spotlight brings. In addition, there is social media - a place home to a constant presence of online trolls and ordinary Joes who can easily have their say with little fear of any repercussions. Many cricketers, for example, have said that they sometimes go on social media during the course of a game where they can see the various opinions of fans. This is something that athletes of old would not have had to deal with.
On top of this, there is the added dimension and obligation to the press. There is doubt as to how much obligation these stars have to the press. Osaka was fined €15,000 for refusing to speak to the media. I find it extremely hard to understand the logic that she be fined for not wanting to participate in press conferences during the French Open due to her mental health issues. While I do agree with former players such as Andrew Castle and Billie Jean King in their view that professional athletes do have media duties, in this instance, it makes no sense to punish this young superstar for being incredibly brave by revealing her mental struggles. There is also the question as to whether Osaka and her management team could have dealt with it in a better way. If they perhaps went about it in a different manner, a fine could have possibly been avoided. Yet it seems evident that the route to take on this matter for Osaka and her management team was unclear. This may be a result of naivety believing that these god-like athletes lack the emotion or stress that any other normal person may face.
Osaka is not the first in wanting to neglect their media duties. Albeit in different circumstances, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kyrie Irving, during this season, has repeatedly refused to talk to the media and has consequently received fines. While one can say that these sportsmen and women have no obligation beyond turning up for their sport and performing, at the end of the day, sport is for the fans. There is no clearer example of the importance of the fans than the backlash from football fans all over the country when the European Super League was proposed by a bunch of money-grabbers who sought only more wealth. I myself attended the protests outside Stamford Bridge with fellow Chelsea fans. Without the fans, sport is nothing. It is primarily an entertainment industry where the money largely comes from television rights. It is these huge personalities that draw in the fans – whether it be Conor McGregor, Usain Bolt, LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo. Stars such as these have raised the profile of their sports and in turn have drawn more and more fans in. You only need to go on YouTube to see Conor McGregor in a press conference to realise the impact that such a personality can have. Therefore, it is important that these superstars do their media duties and let the press do their jobs, in order that the fans can get to know these stars. However, when it comes down to mental health issues, a compromise must be made.
While from the outset it seems uncertain on how sport’s governing bodies can proceed, if they take the example of Naomi Osaka into consideration and the messy manner in which it was dealt with, perhaps they can have better protocols in place to deal with future occurrences of this sort.