By Tino Mantella
TLG President & CEO
Naomi Osaka is a 23-year-old tennis star, currently ranked second in the world. She is also the highest paid female athlete, earning over $37 million dollars annually. Playing on clay, as I understand it, is not where she generally excels.
Osaka is also a human being and, in her own words, gets “huge waves of anxiety before she speaks to media”. She also has shared that she has mental health issues, including anxiety. She is not alone; According to the CDC, between August of 2020 and February of 2021 more than two in five adults over age 18 experienced symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder during a seven-day period. Yes, the pandemic has contributed to the rise, but with or without Covid more people are suffering.
Most professional athletes are contractually obligated to speak – win or lose – to the press shortly after their match/game/event. This keeps interest high for each particular sport and makes the advertisers happy. The sport of professional tennis seems to be a leader in abiding by this requirement.
On May 31st, 2021, Osaka withdrew from the French Open. This was precipitated by the organizers following their rules and fining Osaka $15,000 for choosing not to participate in the mandatory post-match conference. Naomi’s reason for not attending was to protect her mental health. She added “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I watch a press conference or partake in one”. We have all seen people from every walk of life suffering with anxiety and forms of mental illness.
Respect, Trust, and Mental Health
My question is why do people and organizations feel it’s okay to pile on when someone is down? Where is the respect? Where is the trust? Has money become so important that it overshadows what’s best for the individual? Shouldn’t we protect them from harm? Is a press conference more important than a person’s health? And, to level set, in this case it’s only a game. There are more important things in the world than a press conference and the money that is ultimately the reason behind the policies.
Osaka is a brave young woman for letting people know that she has mental challenges. I am not going to second guess her reasoning. No amount of money in the world can, on its own, pull a person out of some personal challenges. An excerpt from a quote from Henry David Thoreau captures it well – “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
The good news is people and institutions are getting behind Naomi’s decision. A company called Calm, for example, is offering to pay the fine for any tennis athlete who decides to forego a press conference because of mental health reasons during this year’s grand slam events.
I am optimistic that when awareness is raised on issues that can be changed for the better, over time they will be changed.