Naomi Osaka's first news conference since early spring — an online press event connected to the Western & Southern open in suburban Cincinnati — unfolded smoothly until a columnist from the Cincinnati Enquirer stepped up with a question.
Osaka, of course, made headlines when she refused to do news conferences at the French Open, explaining that questions she perceived as negative affected her game, and that pressers triggered her anxiety and depression, first diagnosed in 2018.
The sports media, an industry that balances its narcissism with insecurity, took a story about a player's mental health and spun it as a tale about a spoiled diva stiffing hard-working sports scribes.
Since then Osaka, currently ranked second by the WTA, has posted on social networks, penned a guest column for Time magazine, and starred in a Netflix documentary about her life and career. Busy media schedule for somebody who hates press conferences, isn't it? So something had to give, right? All Microphones Matter. It's impossible for a person to let a film crew embed themselves in her camp and find it unsettling to let strangers pepper them with questions about why they don't play well on clay, don't you think?
Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty, for one, had to know how Osaka could embrace some types of media interaction, but detest others.
"You are not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform. I guess my question is, 'How do you balance the two?'"
WATCH | Naomi Osaka emotional following exchange with reporter:
That question elicited a long pause from Osaka, who turned her eyes to the ceiling as if somebody had written the answer there.
"When you say I'm not crazy about dealing with you guys, what does that refer to?" she asked, eventually.
Daugherty tried but didn't quite succeed in making his question less clunky. Both versions included the phrase "I guess my question is," and the awkward back-and-forth kicked off five tense minutes that ended with a tearful Osaka leaving the dais, and the moderator pausing the news conference. Osaka later returned and resumed answering questions.
If you're a reporter or sports opinionator seeking proof of Osaka's news conference anxiety, or the fraught mind state possibly fuelling her lacklustre performances this summer — including a third-round loss at the 2020 Olympics — she provided it Monday night. She took questions, thought hard before responding, and, above all, looked uncomfortable.
So, for the sports media folks who griped about Osaka in the spring — is this what we wanted?
Sports and mental health
The strained exchange with Daugherty generated more headlines than the on-court action at the tournament did, and swallowed five whole minutes of ESPN's overnight SportsCenter broadcast. If we wanted Osaka to deliver compelling content we could disseminate, she came through.
But still, is this what we need?
Osaka's original news-conference opt-out hit sports media in a sore spot. We're eager to talk sports and mental health if it means pro athletes discussing it on the record. But Osaka citing mental health as the reason to trim her press obligations meant less access, and we, as an industry, didn't handle it well, which makes sense given the sports media landscape.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, players had figured out they could spread whatever message they had — social justice, fitness tips, sponsor shout-outs — without a megaphone from the mainstream press. YouTube, Instagram, Players Tribune. Blog posts, branded content, behind-the-scenes videos. They all serve to connect athletes with audiences. None involve the traditional media.
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Every aspect of the setup complicates work for people like us, who need access and honest answers, and license to tell stories that don't first pass through the filter of the athlete's or their sponsor's interests.
The pandemic spurred safety protocols that demand even less face-to-face contact between athletes and the media. Now, writers try to spin interesting stories out of whatever teams and leagues manage to serve us via Zoom.
This problem will persist whenever the pandemic ends, and the sports world settles into whatever its new normal will be. But we can't expect Osaka to solve it by volunteering for press events that trigger her anxiety, then turning tense moments into content.
If Osaka goes Marshawn Lynch, mumbling one-line answers just so she won't get fined, you can't say her relationship with the media serves either party.
If she goes full Hal McRae, because she, like the short-tenured manager of the Kansas City Royals, grows "tired of these stupid a** m*****f*****' questions every night," she'll star in a clip with a long internet afterlife. Still won't make for healthy interactions between parties that need to coexist.
And if she keeps paying fines for the privilege of skipping press events, nobody wins — except whoever's cashing those cheques.
WATCH | Osaka pulls out of French Open due to mental health concerns:
I empathize with the media here. Over two decades in this business, I've been the guy hustling on a tight deadline to conjure something worth reading from a bland press event. Even these days, on some occasions, I'm still that guy. It's an uphill struggle made even steeper knowing most people who care will already have seen the highlights before your story hits the internet, much less the printed page.
But I can also identify with Osaka. Dealing with the media is part of her job, even if she hates it as much as I hate doing taxes, which is part of mine. Except news conferences trigger actual anxiety in Osaka, where I'm simply unequipped to deal with that many numbers in that much detail. Also, I can outsource tax prep, while Osaka has to endure news conferences even if they erode her mental health.
And most of us know the frustration of fielding a muddy question from someone expecting a clear answer.
"I guess my question is…"
In a statement emailed to the New York Times, Osaka's agent, Stuart Duguid, called the approach "bullying."
Might be an overreach, but we know Daughtery didn't even really know what he wanted to know, yet wanted a coherent, honest, thoughtful answer from Osaka.
News conferences, with their compressed schedules, nudge reporters toward compound queries, and broad non-questions that often start with the words "talk about." And they ask the athlete to do most of the work. Receive disjointed questions; return quotable answers.
Repeat every night of the tournament. Repeat every tournament for the whole season.
It's tedious, even if you like it.
That athletes with Osaka's clout still participate speaks to the power of punitive fines and routine duty. But Monday night was a long way from routine. It was newsworthy, and a display of the vulnerability Osaka described before the French Open.
For us in the media, it helped us with headlines and gave us a one-day bump in viewership. It's topical, shareable content.
But, in an era of dwindling access to big stars, it's not a strategy.
And that's not Osaka's problem to solve.