Naomi Osaka's French Open exit forces a reexamination of athlete-media relationship

France Tennis French Open
Posted at 11:37 AM, Jun 04, 2021

Tennis won't have its brightest young star on the big stage. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health, with news conferences – in part  – triggering her anxiety.

"Journalists, I think at-large, I truly believe want to do public good," said Kavitha Davidson, sports and culture reporter for the Athletic.  

"We want to provide a public service. And I think that a lot of the times we end up answering for the worst actors in our industry. And I think that Naomi Osaka's one athlete who has seen the worst actors at play here."

Because of Osaka's exit, we've seen clips of uncomfortable questions in news conferences, particularly aimed at women athletes, resurface on social media

"If you grow up watching people like Venus and Serena Williams getting asked all kinds of questions in post-match press conferences being women, being black women, you would be a little bit wary, I think, of the media as well," Davidson said. "So I do think that we have to reckon with where some of that hesitancy and apprehension comes from."

Osaka's decision to skip news conferences at the French Open looks at the larger question: Do athletes need reporters like they did decades ago?

"Maybe she really doesn't need to deal with the press," said New York Times columnist Kurt Streeter.  "So you could easily make a case that she, as an individual does not. But her tour does."

Streeter says a sport like tennis, as a whole, still benefits from having traditional news coverage, which generates buzz on storylines from professional journalists, who can, for instance, write an in-depth piece.

"The difference between somebody seeing from the outside and then telling the story is just completely different than somebody telling their own story that, you know, in a way when they work, they can, I think, work together to get to a larger truth, to get to to a greater truth."

A lot has been made of the value of sports news conferences. Jane McManus, from Marist College, believes organizers can make accommodations for athletes with Osaka's concerns. But reducing this type of media availability may not be the answer. 

"Part of the reason is you get an authentic reaction from people, right? It's right after something has happened," she said. "They're not manicuring it. Their publicist isn't writing up for their social media account. It is right in the wake of what's happened."

At the end of the day, the journalists Newsy spoke with say Osaka's decision should help reporters, sports organizations, and athletes take stock of their transactional relationship and find the best way to generate interest and tell the athletes' stories.

"I  don't think that they owe us as journalists anything," Davidson said. "I don't think that they owe us as fans anything outside of playing the best that they possibly can. "

"I think that that's one of the major hopes that we have that I have for this conversation going forward, is that we consider all of these aspects and that we really change the way that we talk about athletes, that we talk about their obligations, and that we just talk about them and their humanity."

This story originally reported by Austin Kim on