DETROIT – Let’s talk about talking. How important is it? In the world of sports, it just proved very important, as Naomi Osaka, the No. 2 ranked female tennis player in the world, withdrew from the French Open rather than do press conferences after her matches.
“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she posted on social media. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage. …”
She went on to admit to bouts of depression in the last few years, and added, “So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
The French Open officials fined her $15,000 for the first absence, as they would any other player.
When the other three major tournaments (Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open) warned that Osaka could face fines and even suspensions if this practice continued, she withdrew from Roland Garros altogether.
Now, I have attended many of the press conferences that Osaka refers to. They take place anywhere from 15 minutes to nearly an hour after a match. They last maybe 10 minutes. They are often in crowded rooms, and at the major tournaments they are frequently packed with reporters from various countries, some of whom have styles that are, shall we say, less considerate than an average U.S. sports interview. Questions about personal lives will sometimes be lobbed. So will direct questions about failure.
But in general, they are harmless inquiries (“How did you think the match went?” “Were you concerned when she broke your serve?”) and you can always answer, “No comment.” They are easier, obviously, when you win, and in tennis, you only do one press conference after a loss. Then you go home.
Still, this exercise apparently proves disconcerting for Osaka, who is only 23 years old.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote before the French Open. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
So despite the stakes, she chose walking over talking.
Help or hypocrisy?
This has sparked all kinds of reaction in and around the sports world. Not surprisingly, many athletes, some of whom loathe the media, were loudly supportive. So were Hollywood types like Viola Davis and Will Smith (“You are right, they are wrong!” he posted.) Some fellow tennis players nodded along. Venus Williams explained she deals with the media by telling herself that no reporter will ever play tennis as well as she can and “none of them can light a candle to me.” (Which only shows you the low regard certain athletes have for the press.)
Critics pointed out that Osaka, the highest paid female athlete in the world, gets an awful lot of money by being a public person — she earned $60 million last year, $55 million of it in endorsements — so she seems fine to put herself out there when they’re paying her. Fox Sports’ Marcellus Wiley, a former NFL player, told TMZ, “You’re making the millions, you’re doing the media.”
Others questioned how answering a few inane questions is too much for a person who regularly handles the pressure of playing elite tennis in front of a worldwide audience.
The most cynical noted Osaka, as great as she is, has trouble on the clay surfaces of the French Open and wasn’t likely to win the tournament anyhow (she’s never gone further than the third round) so walking away wasn’t exactly leaving a title on the table.
But all of this is missing the point. Actually, most media members were pretty empathetic to the mental health issues Osaka raised, while conflicted in knowing that if she can skip the process, and another athlete can skip the process, the end game may be no media access whatsoever.
The question is: isn’t that where we are heading anyhow?
Athletes are the new reporters
When I began in this business, in the 1980s, if an athlete wanted people to know more about him or her, there was little choice but to go to the media. A newspaper story. A local TV feature. Otherwise, people saw you play the game — or maybe they didn’t, because not every game was televised back then — and that was it.
So athletes would happily sit for long interviews. Magazines regularly sent reporters to spend a week with a subject. Newspapers were read each day in the locker rooms (you could often find them in the bathroom stalls, when some athletes didn’t want others to know they were interested.) There was regular discussion between the players and the reporters over their coverage.
Flash forward to today. Every major athlete has their own large media presence. In many cases, their audiences on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook dwarf the size of the newspaper, radio or TV outlet asking questions.
So if Tiger Woods wants to break news on his recovery, he posts it himself. If LeBron James wants to sound off on social issues, he tweets, never having to answer a follow-up question from a reporter. Osaka made all this news last week while never speaking to a human journalist in person. She just posted, everyone else read it, and the stories were produced.
Which sort of makes you wonder if Osaka couldn’t just answer press conference questions that way — digitally? It may sound ridiculous, but don’t be surprised if that’s where we are headed. Before the pandemic, nobody envisioned NFL play-by-play guys calling a game 2,000 miles away while sitting at home on their computers.
Widening the gap of human interaction
Look, press conferences are not a great way to get to know someone. They can be contentious and condescending on both sides. The intimacy and trust of a private conversation is completely lost. At best, you get a couple funny answers. At worst, you get “We just have to give it 110% and stay focused.”
But they do offer insight into what happened during the competition and are necessary nuisances in a world of limited time and too much media.
They are also the remnants of a tradition between those who make history and those who record it. In sports, this goes back to days when we rode trains and buses alongside the athletes, played cards with them, drank with them, guarded their personal secrets the way colleagues might, and weren’t so far apart monetarily.
Today, athletes distance themselves on private jets, have huge support staffs and easily earn 100 times more than those who cover them. They often get paid far more to hawk a product than to hit a ball.
Meanwhile, reporters still follow the old pattern. Watch the game. Get quotes from the players. Do the story.
I remember early in my career, when, after a game ended, an older respected sports columnist remained by his small computer as the younger tribe raced down to the locker room.
“Aren’t you coming?” someone asked him.
“No,” he replied, “I can say it better than they can.”
Maybe that’s where this is going. Nobody won in the Osaka affair. But we all got a glimpse of the future. Athletes, like other young people, are growing up in a world where people speak less and less. They tweet. They post. They don’t make eye contact. Doing so becomes a challenge. It may get to the point where talking, real talking — rules or no rules — is a thing of the past.