On Empathy, and Naomi Osaka

Exploring the disproportionate response to Osaka's press boycott

Naomi Osaka will not attend press conferences during Roland Garros.

In a statement on social media, she explained that she’ll instead pay the hefty fines for skipping mandatory press at the major. The full statement pointed to the repetitiveness of questions in press, as well as the self-doubt that certain questions from media leave lingering in players’ minds.

“If the organizations think they can just keep saying “do press or you’re gonna be fined” and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooporation then I just gotta laugh.”

- Naomi Osaka. Full statement available on twitter.

Admittedly, Osaka’s statement is unwieldy - it lands somewhere between advocacy and exasperation - but the reaction to the statement has been disproportionate, and troubling.

On one hand, many are celebrating Osaka’s note as an admonishment of the apparently inept and unprofessional tennis media. A rebel standing up against fake news and manipulative press practices. On the other, Osaka has been called a privileged brat who is ignoring her responsibility and throwing her weight around because she can afford to - the latter interpretation not helped by the recent news that she made $55 million over the past year, making her the highest paid sportswoman in the world.

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I’m not going to speak too much on the first misrepresentation, except to say that I’m broadly suspicious of anyone who throws their hands in the air and mutters ugh, the media! This is in part because here I am, writing my little words in my little newsletter, sending my pitches to said media. This is also because I arrived in America during the 2016 election cycle, and I know exactly what kind of people implore you to hate the media, and why.

Osaka herself has said no such thing. Indeed, she made it clear in her statement that she has good relationships with many in the tennis media. And she’s great in press. Her rise to stardom has not only been thanks to forehands and backhands - it’s been the authenticity she’s shown in press, on tv, and through her own communications channels.

This is why the image of Osaka as a spoiled rich girl shirking her responsibilities is as ludicrous as it is sexist.

Sure, opting to skip press when other players can’t afford the luxury isn’t great optics, but Osaka isn’t somebody who behaves thoughtlessly. We’re talking about the same player who made a point of fore-fronting the Black Lives Matter movement during her championship run at the 2020 US Open. We’re talking about the same player who at the 2019 US Open encouraged a tearful Coco Gauff to take a moment with an adoring NYC crowd, because she felt it would be better for the youngster to speak post-loss than head off court and cry alone.

There are context clues to be had about the person Naomi Osaka is. She isn’t new to us, we’re not just now discovering her through this one decision about press conferences in Paris.

I don’t know if Naomi Osaka’s statement refers to her own mental health, or the health of her colleagues. Unless somebody offers information freely, we can’t pretend to know or understand the mental wellbeing of even the people closest to us and certainly not strangers, professional acquaintances, or our sporting heroes.

Osaka has made a choice. Maybe it’s not the right choice, maybe it is. It’s just a choice. Every time we hurl anger at tennis players (and tennis press) we’re making a choice of our own - we’re choosing to speak, rather than listen. We’re choosing to react, rather than reflect.

Hopefully in time, perhaps through conversations with media, Osaka will fully explain the decision she made this week, the mental health support she and her colleagues require, and the media reform she hopes to see in the future.

In the meantime, we’re currently enduring one of the most psychologically and spiritually challenging periods of world history in a generation. By now, we ought to have learned that empathy is everything.

A quick note…

I’m sending this email on the eve of Roland Garros. Many happy returns.

If you haven’t caught my article in Issue No.16 of Racquet Magazine yet, I have good news: it’s now available online! It’s all about the 2021 Roland Garros poster, which is a beautiful, soulful, deeply homosexual piece of art.

You can read by hitting the pink button below.

This Poster is Gay