Naomi Osaka’s exit shows how athletes are treated like puppets, not players


Rob Prange | Flickr

Raisa Binte Afiz

The sports industry, like many businesses, has expanded over the years by shifting focus away from true athleticism toward pure entertainment.

The players, who were meant to focus on exploring the limits of their respective sports, are having to divert their energy into not only keeping people entertained but also dealing with constant public scrutiny.

Considering the immense toll media pressure takes on an individual’s mental health in combination with how little sports leagues and organizations do to protect their players against overexposure and harassment, tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open is a clear protest against this ongoing abuse athletes have been facing from the industry for decades.

Osaka’s decision came after she was fined $15,000 for having skipped post-match press conferences, a contractual media obligation, following her win against tennis player Patricia Maria Tig.

In addition to the penalty, the 23-year-old player was bombarded by the organizers about their demands from her and threats of expulsion. A very strange way to “check on her well-being and offer support” as detailed in the statement released by the board of the Grand Slam.

This situation has made it abundantly clear that no matter how much these sports organizations claim that the mental health of their athletes is important to them, it’s simply not true.

This is especially true noting the now-deleted tweet from the organizers of the French Open praising other tennis players for engaging with the media — a very clear diss against Osaka.

Mental health is seen as a less serious illness. If a player was discovered to have a broken leg, the act of penalizing them for having missed a press conference would be seen as an inhumane move and change would be demanded. But when it comes to mental health, it is classified as a later problem, as if it does not deserve immediate attention.

Osaka has never hidden her experience from the press.

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

She added that post-match press conferences, especially following a loss, are like “kicking a person when they are down.”

This is easy to understand when one realizes that, for athletes, much of their time is dedicated to advancing in their sport. So, when they are unsuccessful, it is a harder punch in the gut. To chase that feeling with demands from the public to justify a failure is akin to public humiliation.

Some athletes have come forward to side with the Grand Slam board, including Rafael Nadal, Mats Wilander, Ashleigh Barty and Sofia Kenin, who empathized with Osaka’s situation but summarized that “it is what it is.”

Unfortunately for them, this move, which was meant to defend against Osaka’s protest, only went to prove how othered minority players are in the industry, especially when dealing with this much ignorance.

Osaka is a Japanese-Haitian female tennis player who represents the Black community, the Asian community and women in the sports world. Acknowledging intersectionality changes people’s experiences in the same situations — she is facing constant racism and sexism that the Grand Slam board nor the organizations, composed mostly of white men, have not implemented preventative measures against.

So, white men like Nadal and Wilander telling Osaka it is justified that she shouldn’t be able to play until she can accept the sexism she faces is enabling the system.

White women like Barty and Kenin reminding Osaka that absorbing racism from the media is something she “signed up for” is another great example of how othered Osaka is by her community. They not only don’t understand what she is facing — they don’t care.

The fact remains that whatever pressures the other players may face from the press, the misogynoir Osaka has to deal with is a very valid workplace threat her employers have failed to protect her from time and time again. If the organizations truly had done as much for her mental health as they claimed, Osaka would not be struggling with a deteriorating mental state since 2018.

To parade a person who is struggling with depression in front of a press that will subject her to criticism and hate is cruel and a very clear sign the players are like show animals for the company. The second they drop, they’ll be replaced by another.

While the threat is clear, so is the message the Grand Slam has sent: the players are dispensable because the goal for them is not to test the horizons of tennis but rather to make a quick buck off of the “merchandise.”

It is no longer about who is the best player but, rather, who is the player who will strut the most?