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Naomi Osaka's press conference boycott highlights tension between athletes and media

Osaka believes interactions could be reformatted
naomi osaka.jpg
Posted at 10:30 PM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 01:46:09-04

DENVER — The relationship between athletes and the media is complicated at best.

One example: Marshawn Lynch during media day at the Super Bowl.

“I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” Lynch famously repeated over-and-over as reporters probed him with questions.

Then, there was Richard Sherman after the Super Bowl.

“Don’t you ever talk about me,” Sherman shouted as sideline reporter Erin Andrews conducted a post-game interview with him.

“Who was talking about you?” Andrews said.

“Crabtree,” Sherman shouted. “Don’t you open your mouth about the best.”

This strain was most recently on full display after the No. 2 ranked tennis player in the world, Naomi Osaka, pulled out of the French Open and then Wimbledon because of media obligations that she said gave her extreme anxiety before matches.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health,” Osaka said. “And this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

Former Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Harris says the French Open should learn from this.

“First, she’s 23 years old,” Harris said. “Let’s put you on stage or me on stage at 23. And she’s played tennis from 3 years old on up. So, we’re dealing with someone hyper-focused and who is incredibly young still.”

Super Bowl champ Harris says sometimes questions from the media border on absurd.

“And one of the things Naomi said was between these matches when she’s having these interviews, she gets asked questions that aren’t good for her mental health,” Harris said. “One of the things she’s being asked about is her boyfriend, who’s a rapper. It has nothing to do with the match that she’s about to go into.”

Harris points out that the NFL, the NBA, MLB and most American sports contractually prohibit media interviews on game day.

“You can’t talk to a Rockies pitcher or any Major League pitcher the day that they’re pitching,” Harris said. “You can’t interview Nikola Jokic on game day. You cannot interview Tiger Woods before a golf match, but you can do it with Naomi Osaka? The leagues have to find consistency in protecting their players.”

Sports radio host at 104.3 The Fan, Zach Bye, says the media certainly has a role.

“The media has always kind of told the athlete’s story,” Bye said. “That’s important. If they don’t, why would fans care? Throughout history, the athlete has a responsibility to talk to the media. And I know for some folks, that doesn’t quite make sense, but that has always been the relationship.”

Both Bye and his co-host, former Broncos wide receiver and two-time Super Bowl champion Brandon Stokley believe it’s a balancing act.

“I struggled with that for a while just because I do have high anxiety like that,” Stokley said. “But some things you have to do for your job that you don’t like to do. Do you want to get paid? Do you want to get paid a lot of money? Then you’ve got to do media. If you don’t do media, who’s going to pay attention to tennis? Not a lot of people. That’s a big part of building brands.”

“Just as the athlete has a job to do, the media has a job to do as well,” Bye said. “So, this has been a partnership through time.”

The pressure can impact performance.

“You put them on the world stage and they have additional risk factors that someone outside of sport doesn’t have,” said Jessica Bartley, a sports psychologist with the University of Denver and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Bartley says in team sports there are often protections that may not exist in individual sports.

“What we call a protective factor,” Bartley said. “So, you have teammates, you have a lot of social support. You’re engaged in activity and exercise.”

Among young adults 18-25, 30% are struggling with mental health.

“So, it’s not surprising to hear about Osaka,” Bartley said. “And I’m hoping that more and more athletes coming forward will change the conversation about what mental toughness really is, having our elite athletes step up as role models in that space. Destigmatizing the conversation is incredibly important.”

When Osaka does take questions, it’s obvious it’s not her favorite thing to do even after matches.

“What can you learn from a loss like today?” a reporter asked recently.

“Um, what can I learn from a loss?” Osaka said. “I’m not really sure right now. Yeah, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to learn from today.”

Fans of Osaka praise her decision to take a stand.

“I understand it,” said one fan. “It’s a lot of pressure to be put under, especially if she’s just trying to compete. I feel like she’s focused on the game more than anything. I think she’s in it for the game itself, so I respect it.”

Others say she does have an obligation.

“On the other hand, if it’s part of the job that they’re asked to sign up for, if it’s part of the contractual agreement, then obviously the right thing to do as an athlete, as a person in general, is to live up to what you agreed to do,” a fan said.

“Media has to be responsible for asking intelligent questions,” another fan said. “Not redundant, bad questions.”

This debate is driving a renewed movement in the NFL right now about banning reporters from locker rooms.

Current Broncos placekicker Brandon McManus believes reporters should be allowed in the locker room.

“I think it’s a cool part of the NFL,” McManus said during a recent interview. “Some players disagree after you have a bad game and stuff, but that’s just the nature of our business. Obviously, it’s your guys’ job to send it out there to the fans and the viewers.”

And finally, social media is also changing the game.

“Athletes own platforms, their own social media, their own voices,” Bye said. “They may need the media less than ever before. Kyrie Irving can say, ‘If I tweet something, I’ll reach more people than your outlet ever will. Therefore, I no longer have the need.’ Is that the right thing? Probably not.”

What most can agree on is that experience helps.

“It’s always okay to say, ‘Hey, I’m here because I don’t want to get fined,’” Harris said.

“If you have anxiety about it, I get it,” Stokley said. “That’s a bummer, but you have to do it.”

“We’re dealing with a young athlete who is an inspiration to people worldwide,” Harris said. “An inspiration to my daughter. Tennis just hasn’t done a good job at creating that balance for players.”

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