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THE GAZ STATION • Sports by Gary Jordan

Osaka Opens Mental Health Debate With Media

Published on June 2, 2021

Naomi Osaka Naomi Osaka in 2018, the year her depression started. PHOTO © PETER MENZEL

I am writing this week’s column after a weekend that saw me have a landmark birthday and see off some unnecessary work issues over the past few weeks that have led to some serious mental health issues.

In the past I have always thought of myself as the kind of person that can deal with issues, trivial or life changing, with an ease that almost makes it seem like I do not care. Everyone of course deals with things in their own way. The past couple of months have been challenging and things got to the point where I had to take a virtual time out to get things sorted. Hopefully, things are on the mend, and the road will be a little smoother now. This is the first time that I have written about the problem.

Talking, as we have been told over the last couple of years, does help. No longer is it a bad thing to feel like the odds are stacked against you and that you cannot ask for help. Long may this continue, and those that find themselves in a deeper and darker place can get the help they need and see the light not as a distant spot but as something that shines on them.

So why is this relevant now, and in these sports pages? Well, the story of young tennis sensation Naomi Osaka has put mental health front and centre in the sports world. The 23-year-old Japanese superstar, who has been living in Beverly Hills. LA, since aged just 3, has withdrawn from this week’s French Open grand slam tournament after expressing that she did not want to do the press conferences after games as they bring her anxiety issues to the fore, and that it would damage her going forward. After winning her first-round match with relative ease, she declined to fulfil her media duties. This resulted in a fine, and a warning that if further sessions with the press were missed it would lead to her expulsion from the tournament. Less than 24 hours later she issued a full statement on social media that announced she would not be taking any further part in the event:

“Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can go back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.

“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

These opening few lines from her statement show where her mind is, and how she is trying to deal with the huge issues she has. The spotlight was on her from an early age. Some cope easily with this and others have ventured far off the rails. This is a case, I feel, of Osaka being brave enough to open up and address the issues before they spiral out of control. A safeguarding of herself. In many ways the rod she has now made for herself could make things harder when she does go in front of the world’s media again. After all, she cannot stay quiet forever. A four-time grand slam winner already, the future is hers to make of it what she will, but there will be a next time and it’s how this is dealt with that is important.

Dealing with mental health issues has become a hot topic over the last few years, and even more so during the pandemic. Not being able to leave their homes for work or to socialise has put an almighty strain on some people and in turn the authorities that are set up to help in such cases. The true outcome of this may not be known for quite some time because the number of people suffering in silence may not ever be classified.

By withdrawing, Osaka has opened the debate on how sports stars should be treated by the media. It is a known fact that the media want stories, not just a match report. The news feeds can tell you how a game is won and lost, but journalists want the background and the individual story. This can be intrusive and often crosses the boundaries between sport and personal life.

There is a counterargument that, if you are at the top of your game, you must expect a level of questioning that goes beyond the game. Of course, this does a disservice to good and well-mannered journalists. It’s too easy to paint them all with the same brush, and that can be damaging too. The line is thin for both sides.

Marshawn Lynch Marshawn Lynch in 2015, the year he played games with the media. PHOTO © WEBN-TV

There will not be a wholesale change to how interviews are conducted. The games go on and the stories will be there, but we must also take on board the wishes of those that struggle in front of the microphone. Players do their talking on the court, field or wherever the action takes them. They may be too introverted, as Osaka has admitted to being, to carry out a media session straight after a tough match.

Sponsors and broadcasting contracts may demand it – just look back to 2015 and the NFL’s Super Bowl Media Day. The world was looking for any kind of soundbite from the top players. The then Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was always good for just that, but also for being flippant with reporters, so when threatened with a potential fine if he didn’t show up at the Media Day, he answered every question with “I’m just here so I won’t get fined, boss.” Now, this can be seen as amusing and getting one over the boss, but it also shows the state of mind of a player that just wants to show up and play the game: the rest is either trivial or not worth his time. Is that wrong? Well, not if you can perform at the highest level each time you are called upon.

We are told that talking helps, and it does. Osaka talked, and was then threatened with fines and being thrown out of a high-profile event. For telling the world how she feels, she has paid the price of having to stop playing the game she loves before it consumed her. Changing the way we expect our media and sports authorities to behave will be a slow process, but let us hope this week’s example is a stepping stone in the right direction.

You can read more about mental health for expats in our article 'How the Pandemic Affected Expat Health'.

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