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Halftime Report | Naomi Osaka and athletes’ right to remain silent

Silence is golden – and it can cost you a pretty penny if you’re a professional athlete. Such was the case with Naomi Osaka at the French Open. 

Naomi Osaka Getty Images

“Halftime Report” is REVOLT’s new bi-weekly sports column. Here, fans of games will find all of the unfiltered sports news that they can’t get anywhere else. From professional sports to college sports, and from game recaps to athletes’ latest moves and updates, “Halftime Report” is the place for sports commentary that you need.

Silence is golden – and it can cost you a pretty penny if you’re a professional athlete. Such was the case with Naomi Osaka at the French Open. The No. 2-ranked women’s tennis player in the world withdrew from the tournament after declining to take part in a press conference. Despite disclosing that the engagement would trigger her anxiety, she was still fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension. The four Grand Slam tournaments issued the following joint statement:

“Naomi Osaka today chose not to honor her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct.”

The four-time Grand Slam winner took to Twitter to explain her decision, what led to it, and the timing of her withdrawal. Having suffered from depression since the 2018 US Open and experiencing intense anxiety when speaking to media, the Haitian-Japanese trailblazer wanted the focus to be on the actual tennis game being played in Paris; not on herself. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” she wrote in her statement. She also disclosed that she felt the questions asked at the press conferences are repetitive and put doubt into the minds of players.

The part of her statement that jumps out is that she gets “really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.” Let’s face it, one misquote or a fumbled delivery of words can instantly go viral in today’s sports world that is largely driven by the double edge sword that is social media. How many times have we seen an athlete’s participation in a post-game presser haunt them for years? Before you rush to suggest that these highly talented individuals choose a different career or lament them for “whining” while making millions, try to practice a little humanity.

While Osaka declined after her first-round win, there are often times that players are given little no “cooling off” period before having microphones and cameras shoved into their faces after a loss. Emotions are usually still raw, and they still must choose their words wisely or have their integrity and personality picked apart on “SportsCenter” or “First Take.” Who can forget NFL quarterback Cam Newton being trashed across the airwaves after the way he handled a press conference following the Carolina Panthers loss in Super Bowl 50? The then-26-year-old reigning NFL MVP had just lost the biggest game of his career on the world’s biggest stage. In front of 71,088 fans and millions more watching at home, the Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos after entering the game as the favorite. A dejected Newton stated, “I don’t know what you want me to say, I’m sorry” before exiting the podium abruptly. He was instantly criticized, and one may argue that the incident contributed to the vitriol the now-New England quarterback still faces to this day.

He later offered the following insight to Ebony, “Who is anyone to tell me, ‘Man it’s just an interview.’ You haven’t been in that situation. You didn’t have millions of people watching you. Your heart wasn’t pumping [with] the embarrassment or the anxiety of the stress of dealing with that type of game. I just wasn’t ready to talk. Was I mad? Hell yeah! But there could have been a better way to control it, and that’s why I think having more time would have helped.”

The key words were “You have not been in that situation.” That can be said for almost everyone in sports media, save the former athletes that transition into analyst roles after they retire from their respective sports. Yet, there are those in the industry that trot into locker rooms and press conferences feeling entitled because they know the athletes have a media obligation to fulfill. Don’t get me wrong. The field is full of compassionate reporters and journalists, but there’s always “some.” There are the baited questions asked by those looking for a soundbite at any cost that give some athletes reason for hesitation. The stress of competition coupled with anxiety or fear of saying the “wrong thing” can take a toll.

Not to mention, mental health is still a very taboo topic despite recent efforts to be more sympathetic. Take for instance the difference in the narratives surrounding Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis and Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving. Davis did not, and was not expected to, engage with media following his groin strain in Game 4 of the NBA playoffs. This wasn’t a one off. Most players are given the option to decline interviews following an injury and while rehabbing. On the other hand, Irving’s decision to take a break for his mental health was met with ire, criticism, and jokes. A Forbes article went as far as referring to the NBA champion as the “NBA’s leader in bad optics.”

Taking a break for his mental health and to address oppression in his community is considered bad optics. To whom? Irving has been unwavering and is the definition of unbothered as his Nets barrel through the NBA Playoffs. When he felt he was well, he returned, had conversations with those important to him, and moved on. The stark differences in the mainstream reaction to Irving versus Davis is not all that surprising. Former NBA player Royce White summed up the league’s approach to mental health.

“I challenged the league about mental health policy,” he exclusively told REVOLT. “I challenged that, I believe wholly that they are global corporate community, or they represent one. There aren’t many industries that aren’t involved in the NBA or pro sports.

“Given that, their attitude toward mental health, which is another word for the human condition, is paramount. There’s nothing more important than how the corporate world feels about people.”

White was a lottery pick 2012 NBA Draft who ended up playing a total of three minutes in three regular-season games. The media drew up the “bust” narrative without knowing the full details and the fight he was ensnarled in, as he challenged the league to develop a mental health policy.

Several athletes including Ja Morant, Serena Williams, Russell Wilson, and Martina Navratilova voiced their support of Osaka. The 23-year old’s legacy is being cemented – on and off the court. Last summer, she put her social activism on full display be wearing masks with the names of police brutality victims in every round en route to winning her second US Open title. This year, she represents the athletes who are not afforded the right to remain silent when it comes to media interactions. Osaka’s stand challenges not only the outdated policies governing athletes and interviews, but is another step in athlete empowerment.

While social media is often admonished for its grip on popular culture, it can actually be a vehicle for the public to see the person past the uniform. The access to athletes and other celebrities via Twitter, Instagram, etc. provides a glimpse into the actual human being — not just someone who entertains the masses in athletic venues. In other words, you have every opportunity to actually learn about the players you cover.

I challenge those in journalism to act with integrity, establish trust, respect boundaries, and be open to adapting your coverage to respect the different personalities of the athletes you encounter. It’s evident that you have a job to do, but I ensure you, the quality of your work will improve when you have a willing subject. The ball is in our court.

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