Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open due to anxiety-inducing media appearances has ignited a national discussion about expectations from athletes when it comes to public speaking engagements.
Per the tournament’s code of conduct, media interviews are mandatory for athletes. But for Osaka, the Q&As caused "huge waves of anxiety," so she stepped away from the competition to focus on self-care, she explained in a lengthy statement on social media.
The tennis star’s sponsors, including Nike, Mastercard, Sweetgreen and Nissin Foods, are supporting her decision. And other athletes and celebrities, such as Serena Williams, are standing behind Osaka.
“If the volume of athlete responses, in and outside of tennis, is any indication, this is not going to be a cat you can put back in the bag,” says Dianna Kraus, global MD of FleishmanHillard Sports. “[Osaka] has started the conversation, and her experience is too shared for that conversation to be short-lived.”
Barbara Laidlaw, a partner at Allison+Partners who oversees global reputation risk and public affairs, notes that Osaka’s action could be “pivotal” in terms of how mental health issues are discussed.
“For her to do this and be supported by her sponsors allows us to validate the conversations we’ve been having over the past two years about mental health and self care in the face of the pandemic and as we come out of it,” says Laidlaw.
Osaka’s decision will also have ramifications for major sporting bodies and tournaments. Governing bodies and sporting events will “feel the aftershocks on this one,” says Kraus, as it is the norm for them to include media interviews in athletes’ contracts. Because those clauses are baked into participation agreements, an athlete backing out can create quite the “hornets’ nest,” says French/West/Vaughan CEO Rick French.
“This can create a problem for the tour because what if other athletes decide they are no longer going to participate in a press conference?” says French. “It makes it difficult for journalists to do their job; and it’s also part of the marketing of the event itself. Those interviews are used as postscripts for other news outlets to report on the activities of the tournament.”
A challenge, particularly for sponsors, will be picking and choosing when they will be supportive of athletes’ mental health needs. If an athlete stops giving press interviews, sponsors could lose TV time showcasing logos.
“[It] will be interesting to watch sponsors’ reactions when mental health is cited by one of their athletes for cancellation or rescheduling of contractually obligated engagements outside of competition,” Kraus says.
Osaka’s hatred for press conferences isn’t too much of a shock. Press conferences are difficult for athletes, particularly those who don’t play a team sport, say PR pros.
“Imagine trying your best to do something and standing in front of the press and they say, ‘How come you sucked today?’ says Laidlaw. “Press conferences are also awkward for the press as there is no time to sit down and talk and get a story and understand the athlete.”
French adds that he can understand why some athletes find press conference questions insulting after a game, but he adds that athletes must have some responsibility to be accountable to media questions. The media is an important part of the ecosystem that contributes to their earnings, so they must “take the good with the bad,” he says.
“It’d be unfair not to recognize that press is necessary fuel for the business of sports, but ultimately there ought to be numerous paths to finding a compromise that puts athletes’ health at the center of the negotiation,” Kraus adds.
Despite this being a watershed moment, it isn’t likely that Osaka’s move will lead to select athletes being excused from press conferences.
“Rafael Nadal said it best: Without media, athletes wouldn’t be what they are today,” says Bret Werner, president of MikeWorldWide. “Because of the global interest in sports and the media attention, entities are able to drive record-setting ratings, get rights fees and attract sponsors. So it is a symbiotic relationship.”
However, the French Open, and other sporting events, must recognize that not all communications forms are right for every athlete.
“What the leagues and teams need to do is a better job of preparing athletes to deal with the media,” says Werner. “Some people aren’t best suited for mass press conferences or 50 reporters on Zoom. They need different settings to best communicate.”
Other options for someone like Osaka, advises Werner, could be sitting down with just five global reporters or doing a press conference in a written Q&A format. “But [athletes] have to continue with accessibility,” Werner says.
An opportunity for the sports industry
What should the French Open do next? Figure out what its purpose is, say experts.
“I would argue that the role of the tour and event organizers is to bring the best players in the world together to compete for the highest championships,” says French. “I don’t think the role is necessarily in exploiting their media rights deals. The competition needs to come before the exploitation of the competition.”
The French Open, and the general tennis world, has a real opportunity to lead the way in what is clearly a universal professional sport issue, explains Kraus.
“The Grand Slams could recognize considerable reputational gains by embracing the moment and driving the conversation from here,” Kraus says.
Laidlaw notes that the French Open needs to find a way to work with Osaka and other athletes to make sure that their health is taken care of along with contractual obligations. One potential response from the French Open could be making a mental health investment.
“If a league or entity like the French Open took a bold step here, they would be perceived as thought leaders, and it is the right thing to do,” says Werner. “The sports industry historically has not been great on issues management when it comes to comms, so this is a great opportunity to move forward and start positive change.”