If Naomi Osaka is struggling with her mental health, then that’s what she should have said. That would’ve been helpful. That would have been powerful, especially coming from someone celebrated as a strong woman and the world’s most prominent female athlete. That’s how I’d always seen her.
But that’s not what she said this week in announcing that she’s going to boycott the press during the French Open, one of tennis’ major championships. What she said was that the media are bullies, the media make athletes answer the same questions over and over, the media “have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
Osaka didn’t say that she’s having a mental health issue. What she said was that the media are perpetuating mental health issues in athletes. She took it on as a cause.
This is bigger than a typical blame-the-media issue.
I wrote about this here yesterday, criticizing Osaka for hijacking the important issue of mental health when her case doesn’t fit that at all, at least not based on what she said. It took off on Twitter, with what I’d guess to be a 60-40 split in favor of what I’d written.
But the response against my argument was mostly angry people saying I shouldn’t attack someone who is standing up for mental health issues. That was among the legitimate responses, anyway. Others included people saying I don’t like her because she’s a strong black woman.
I AM the one standing up for mental health issues here. Osaka isn’t. I’m calling for her to represent a strong, black woman athlete, as she always had before. But this time, she isn’t.
What she did was trivialize the serious issue of mental health struggles that people really have now. She was equating her desire not to answer media questions with people who have serious diseases that make it hard to live their lives, people who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
That’s not the same as “I don’t want to have to answer the same questions over and over again.”
This isn’t to attack Osaka. It’s to disagree with her. There is a difference.
Some people were saying that I sounded like FOX’s Skip Bayless criticizing Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for saying publicly last summer that he was struggling with his mental health.
Here is how I started my column on that at the time: “What Dak Prescott did was strong, not weak. What he did was lead, not follow. Help, not hurt.”
Let’s have a real discussion about this, not a social media snark attack. I praised Prescott at the time because, “In his very public position of quarterback of America’s team, he shared personal experience when a lot of people are suffering in a similar way for the first time in their lives, too.”
Prescott was standing for something, as he said.
When someone in Osaka’s position says she doesn’t want to answer the same question over and over and calls that a mental health issue, that just makes things so much harder for those with real problems to seek help and believe they’ll be taken seriously.
Look, I am the tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and I have dealt with athletes struggling, now in particular. Last summer, some of our players talked about spending their entire day in their bedrooms, having a hard time coming out. I tried to talk them into going for a short bike ride, do 15 minutes of yoga out in the sun, practicing their second serve for 10 minutes. Anything. I talked to a sports psychologist and got advice on this.
This is serious. And it would have helped them to know that Osaka might be having some of the same struggles. Instead, Osaka, in lumping her boycott under the category of mental health struggles, is now telling them, roughly, that what they were going through was the same as what she goes through in having to answer the same question over and over.
And where are the media in this? They could be helpful, too. I suspect they are too afraid to be critical of Osaka over anything, as it leads to threats and fear of being canceled. That doesn’t help.
Look, I’m not a fan of the media either. But check out ASAPsports.com, where lots of interviews with athletes have been fully transcribed. Read through interviews with Osaka. There aren’t tough questions. The media gush over her and love her.
So now, the WTA Tour, the women’s tennis tour, is saying they’d like to talk with her about this issue. You mean, she hasn’t told the tour that she’s struggling with her mental health during interviews? Why not? Has she spoken with the International Tennis Writers Association?
At this point, Osaka is just coming across as a spoiled athlete who doesn’t think she should be criticized.
A lot of people are counting on her to be more.