Couch: Corporate Overlords Leave Osaka Out To Dry In French Flip Flop

The corporate social justice warrior simply cannot exist. It’s not possible. The recipe doesn’t work. It takes complete honesty, rawness, courage and heart to truly push for social change. But once Nike, or any other corporate entity, gets overly involved and starts financing it, promoting it, selling it and attaching a logo to it, the whole thing gets tangled up and confusing and usually just falls apart.

Or in Naomi Osaka’s case, it blows up in your face. When Osaka, the world’s most heavily endorsed female athlete, withdrew from the French Open tennis tournament Monday, she instantly was championed for starting a conversation about mental health struggles in general and, to a lesser extent, in athletes. That ended a five-day losing PR battle that Osaka started, pitting her against the sport’s governing bodies and the media.

Osaka said Monday for the first time that she has been suffering from long bouts of depression and needs to step away and work on herself. And it’s unquestionably an important moment when the world’s most prominent female athlete and such a strong, powerful woman says something like that and takes such shocking action. It only helps people with mental health struggles to take action for themselves, too.

Osaka now needs time, space and support for herself, though she also has now taken this on as another of her social causes. So if that’s what this has all been about, then more power to Osaka.

But wait. Her withdrawal ended a five-day fight over the requirement to answer questions at post-match press conferences, which, she had said, disregards athletes’ mental health. The fight started when Osaka announced on social media that she would boycott her mandatory daily press conferences.

And on Monday, when she withdrew from the tournament, her tone had completely changed from someone who had been on the attack to someone making herself vulnerable. Somewhere in there, Osaka’s support team and the PR people from the corporate entities that pay her $50 million a year, let her down.

It looks as if they stepped in on Monday to help her re-shape a PR moment that had gone bad. They might have helped her to create the mess in the first place, too. It’s impossible to know.

“The tennis press has always been kind to me,’’ she said on social media Monday, announcing that she had withdrawn.

Five days earlier, in announcing her boycott, she posted this: “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.’’

So the media have no regard for her mental health when dealing with her in press conferences and at the same time have always been kind to her?

“I really want to work with the tour to find ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans,’’ she said Monday.

Five days earlier: “If the organizations think they can just keep saying, `Do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.’’

It is just too messy to untangle this whole thing because of the corporate hands involved.

I think -- and wrote twice last week, here and here -- that this didn’t start as a fight to help people with mental health struggles, but instead only as an athlete who didn’t want to have to deal with the media. I think she, and her corporate handlers, figured that Osaka could get her message across the way she wanted with her large social media following and corporate marketing.

And it would be just so easy to pin blame on the media, because nobody likes the media.

“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,’’ she said last week. “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room.’’

I have gone through several transcripts of Osaka interviews and have yet to find one challenging question. The media gush over her. Just check out, where transcripts are stored.

If she was in this for other athletes, then that was lost in her messaging. Instead, she had brought something as important as mental health struggles into a fight about controlling her image. But people who put on major sporting events like having the international media publicize them.

And for people with serious mental health issues, it was trivializing their problems to equate them with not wanting to talk with the media.

Meanwhile, Osaka’s sister, Mari, wrote on social media that Osaka just didn’t want to be around people asking her about her struggles playing tennis on clay courts. It hurt her confidence, which is a mental health thing.

Is that really the same as mental health struggles?

“So many people are picky on this term thinking you need to have depression or have some sort of disorder to be able to use the term mental health,’’ Osaka’s sister wrote a few days ago.

Suddenly, that post is gone, replaced by I “f---ed up.’’

Osaka never told French Open officials, or the WTA tour, that her boycott was coming. When she made her announcement, both governing bodies said they then tried to contact her, but she didn’t reply. So she lashed out at them in a statement but never talked to them about it?

She was questioning their authority. The French Open fined her $15,000 for skipping her first press conference and said -- in a statement with all four majors -- that the fines could go up, and if she keeps this up, she could be kicked out of the tournament and future majors.

Osaka’s attack then changed to “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.’’

And Nike, Mastercard and other endorsers are all coming out today announcing their support for her. They already did their damage.

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Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian. Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.