Opinion: The tennis star's decision to withdraw from the French Open is a pivotal moment in the relationship between sports stars and the media
Naomi Osaka's decision to pull out of this year’s French Open will go down as a major moment in the relationship between elite-level athletes and the media. Rather than a dramatic end-point in an ongoing struggle between athletes and the press, this could be the start of a wider trend for sports stars in how they choose to interact with the media.
Last week, the 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam winner caused controversy by declining to take part in any contractually-obligated media duties and press conferences at Roland-Garros, citing mental health reasons. Yesterday, Osaka said she would be pulling out of the French Open completely, after being fined $15,000 and harshly threatened with disqualification and expulsion from future Grand Slam events including Wimbledon.
Stating she had been suffering from "long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018", she said: "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."
It was a stunning turn of events which will give the media an opportunity to reflect on its role covering sport. It will also give other athletes like Osaka pause for thought in their interactions with the press. The question now is if others will follow her example?
Since the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and media powerhouses like Netflix and Amazon over the past decade, there has been an ongoing power struggle between sports stars and traditional media outlets which report on them. Equipped with powerful communication tools that allow sports stars to speak with their millions of fans across the world directly, athletes like Osaka simply don’t need the media like they used to. They can produce their own content and share it on Instagram and TikTok without the need for a journalist to act as a go-between.
Years ago, sports stars relied on newspapers, television and radio stations to promote games and create publicity. Now, elite athletes and sports stars can now host their own Apple Podcast series, be the executive producer on their own Netflix special or stream their own Instagram Q&A with fans.
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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, coverage of the breaking news about Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open
Such platforms have given them the means and opportunity to monetise their own digital content, attract lucrative sponsors in the process, secure brand deals and, most of all, share it all directly with their millions of fans across the globe. All of this without the need for a newspaper columnist or a TV host like before.
Speaking to the media does not have the same appeal as it did decades ago when sports stars needed the media to create hype and publicity. Then, the press was a way for fans to get to know their favourite sports personalities. The media was that go-between for athletes and fans, but now social media has replaced that role too.
If you want to get a flavour of how funny, awkward and endearing Osaka is when she isn’t winning Grand Slam titles, the first port of call is her Instagram account and not the sports pages of a Sunday newspaper. She has amassed over two million followers on Instagram, has almost a million followers on Twitter and almost 300,000 fans on TikTok. Her ability to talk directly to her own fans, broadcasting her own message, is incredible.
From Australian Open TV, highlights of Naomi Osaka's win over Jennifer Brady in the 2021 final
By using her social media platforms to promote her brand (she earned $55 million as the best-paid female athlete in 2020), celebrate her achievements and talk to her fanbase, Osaka and all modern sports stars have the ability to control the narrative. They can answer questions they like and ignore ones they don’t like.
On the flipside, for all the criticism which the traditional media receives, rightly and wrongly, its fundamental purpose is to act as an independent, objective, source of information. Its goal is to try and convey this information to the audience in an unbiased way. No ulterior motives, no favouritism: the media’s goal is to call it down the middle as best as possible.
The press at Roland Garros, like at every sporting event whether a FIFA World Cup, Tour de France or Super Bowl, is there to celebrate the achievements of sports stars. But journalists are also present to ask difficult questions that, while at times unpleasant, audiences want to hear the answers to.
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From Vogue, 24 hours with Naomi Osaka
The media fulfils a crucial role in our society to be that objective interpreter of information and journalists’ role at sporting events is to praise, critique, analyse and explain events on the field of play in equal measure. Sport is a game of winners and losers: if a player performs well, they will be praised by the media. If a player performs badly, they will likely be criticised for their performance, asked what happened and why: "what went wrong out there today?"
However, the difficult part, as alluded to by Osaka in her articulate statements, is how far the media goes in terms of fair criticism and the demands asked of elite athletes when it comes to their media duties. Hours are spent by tennis stars fulfilling television and broadcast interview duties after games, followed by a press conference, where the same questions can be repetitive and exhausting.
When media duties are such a burden that they negatively impact an athlete's mental health and state of mind, it’s time to reassess how press conferences are conducted
Athletes’ mental health must be a significant consideration when we discuss media duties, particular for an introverted athlete like Osaka who does not enjoy the limelight at all. When media duties are such a burden that they begin to negatively impact an athlete's mental health and state of mind, it’s time to reassess how press conferences are conducted and how far critiques of sports stars go before they cross a line.
Thanks to social media, access to top-level stars has been shrinking year after year. Athletes know they don’t need the traditional media to communicate with their fans and, like Osaka, are beginning to realise that talking to the media holds fewer and fewer benefits for them. This week at Roland-Garros will be a pivotal moment in the relationship between sports stars and the media going forward. Osaka could be the first in a long line of elite-level athletes who choose to forego the media.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ