Sports

Naomi Osaka Exposed a Problem With Sports Media

Here’s how to fix it.

Naomi Osaka sits in front of a microphone.
Naomi Osaka attends a press conference during the 2019 China Open. Zhe Ji/Getty Images

A good rule of thumb, if you are in charge of putting on one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events, is that you do not want the biggest story of that event to be that you’ve chased off one of the best and most recognizable athletes in your sport. The organizers of tennis’s French Open are facing just that predicament. The reasons have a little bit to do with the tournament’s ham-handed handling of a sensitive situation, and a lot to do with old sports traditions growing less practical with time.

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The drama commenced when world No. 2 Naomi Osaka announced last Wednesday that she would not participate in mandatory press conferences at the French Open. Osaka criticized the press conference format as harmful to players’ mental health and competitive focus, and said she hoped that any fines she might be forced to pay would “go towards a mental health charity.”

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The escalation came on Sunday, when the French Open (also known as Roland-Garros) enlisted the three other Grand Slam organizers (who run the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) for a joint statement castigating Osaka. They emphasized that in addition to a $15,000 fine in this instance, Osaka could face “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions” if she continued to avoid media obligations. Osaka, who indeed skipped the press conference after her first-round victory, responded by dropping out of the French Open field altogether, calling it “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being.” In that second statement, she described suffering “long bouts of depression” since the 2018 U.S. Open, where she beat Serena Williams to win her first Grand Slam title. She also called herself an introvert, and said that speaking to the world press gives her “huge waves of anxiety.”

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The whole situation, for lack of a more artful term, sucks. Osaka is one of the world’s greatest athletes and is for the most part a media darling. That in no way means, though, that doing press is easy for her. She knows herself better than anyone else, and should do whatever she feels is best to safeguard her well-being. The Grand Slams, meanwhile, bolstered the case that they’re not worried about anyone’s mental health when they made a relatively small thing into a big thing, seeing to it that Osaka would miss not just an hour or so of press conferences but nearly an entire tournament of tennis. In a better version of events, Osaka would’ve won this tournament, completing the third part of a career Grand Slam. Maybe then she’d have talked to the media, or not. Regardless, this didn’t have to be an intercontinental incident.

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If l’affaire d’Osaka presents a lesson, it’s not specific to the figures involved here. One lasting truth that should come out of the 2021 French Open is that, in major sports, press conferences are increasingly not worth the trouble they create. It’s time for both sports media and the athletes they cover to settle on a new way to talk to each other.

Osaka’s initial description of tennis press conferences was, in part, just factual. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before,” she wrote on Wednesday. But she also said, “I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me” and that “the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down.” Most reporters probably do not doubt Osaka, even when she loses the odd match and they ask her why she thinks she came up short. You don’t have to be a tennis expert to understand that the 23-year-old world No. 2 is well on track to being an all-time great. Most reporters are also not interested in kicking Osaka while she’s down. She knows as much, as she pointed out in her second statement that she has “a friendly relationship” with most of the tennis press. She apologized in particular to “all the cool journalists who I may have hurt.”

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How then should we square Osaka’s positive relationship with many tennis journalists with her viewing press conferences as an exercise in tearing down athletes? The answer lies in a format that makes genuine human connection essentially impossible.

Here, it’s worth clarifying that a “press conference” is not the same as a one-on-one or even a small scrum interview. At a press conference, an athlete sits at a podium before an entire room of media members and a bank of TV cameras and answers questions from the throng. Rather than facilitate a discussion between a reporter doing her job and an athlete doing hers, these pressers turn information acquisition into a public performance, one that’s more about optics than edification.

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This dynamic has existed for as long as press conferences have been televised, but it’s become more acute the last few years, and especially so in the NBA. Any kind of quasi-adversarial question—“Hey, why’d you guys play badly tonight?”—is liable to be taken (by Twitter users and/or by the players themselves) as an affront. And even when the exchanges are reasonably benign, the amount of information gleaned in an NBA presser is minimal. As the Athletic’s Jason Lloyd explained to the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis: “The podium is nonsense. It’s all for show.”

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Tennis press conferences aren’t the same as NBA ones. They tend to be both less theatrical and more valuable, given that locker room access is nonexistent on the tennis tours. Even so, the more people who pile into a press setting, the less personal everything gets, and the less valuable the experience is for everyone.

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There’s no answer to satisfy all parties involved here. (In particular, it’s worth noting that plenty of Osaka’s less famous peers would love to do more press conferences, or get any attention from the press at all.) Limiting the number of reporters who can attend events might make athlete-reporter discussions less weird, but it would create a void that teams and players would fill with their own public relations staffs, resulting in less interesting, less critical coverage. Such a move would also concentrate power in the hands of the few reporters who have the longest-standing relationships with the organizations they cover.

The best solution would be to move to a pool system, where immediate pre- and postgame media access is reserved for a small—but rotating and equitably agreed-upon—cast of reporters. Five or six media types around a player’s locker, or standing out in a hallway, can have something more resembling an actual conversation with their interview subjects. A limited number of TV cameras and spotlights would make for better conversation too. These interviews would be distributed widely for reporters’ use, just as press conference quotes are today. Nobody would be losing any scoops, given that it’s impossible to get a scoop at a public press conference anyway, and the media-source discussions couldn’t be less substantive than they are now.

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The pool system works in politics. The White House press corps uses it to track the movements of the most powerful person on Earth. If it can work there, it can work in a place where the stakes are a mite lower. The sports world already uses the pool system in spots: during Super Bowl week, for instance, and often when an official is called on to explain a controversial ruling after a game.

In the long run, sports media organizations might not have a choice but to move in this general direction. The implicit bargain among sports media, athletes, and teams used to be that the subjects would provide access, and in exchange the journalists would give the games publicity. That deal has lasted a long time, but today’s best athletes and biggest teams no longer need most of us in the media to get the word out. They can sell their broadcast rights to a media partner with or without press conferences. And Naomi Osaka, after all, didn’t need a team of reporters to get the word out about her views on press conferences. She just had to post them on Twitter and Instagram.

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Reporters losing access to the most important people in sports isn’t a trend worth celebrating. The result is an increasingly corporatized media landscape, where everything you see, read, and hear is stage-managed down to the last detail.

But the Osaka story doesn’t have to be an endpoint. It should be the beginning of a new approach, one where athletes and reporters figure out a way to work together even if neither gets exactly what they want.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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