Naomi Osaka's withdrawal puts athlete mental health in sports spotlight

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal puts athlete mental health in sports spotlight

Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to push back sports authorities and share her mental health issues has garnered support from the sports world and raised hopes that more attention will be paid to the pressures facing them. athletes, especially women and players of color.

Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros on Monday after clashing with officials over her desire to skip media interviews to prioritize her mental health.

The move plunged her into the heart of an ongoing debate about what sports demand of athletes who compete at the highest level – as well as the burden placed on minorities in traditionally white-dominated spaces.

Ranked # 2 in the world, Osaka moved to the United States at the age of 3 and has both Japanese and Haitian heritage. She said this week that she had “suffered from long periods of depression” since being catapulted into the world limelight after an unexpected victory over Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018.

Osaka said that she found some of the tournament rules for players “outdated” and “thought it was better to take care of yourself and avoid press conferences.”

A number of black female tennis players from the United States have expressed their support.

Tuesday Coco gauff said she admired Osaka’s “vulnerability”, while Serena Williams said it was important to remember that everyone is different when it comes to dealing with the spotlight.

Sloane Stephens said Osaka should be applauded, adding that she hopes her decision will lead to a more frank dialogue about the pressures many players face.

“A lot of people play being miserable and upset.… I think instead of traumatizing her and making fun of her situation, we should be more tolerant,” Stephens said at a press conference after her. first round victory on Tuesday. .

“The feelings are real and we are all human,” she added.

Other athletes joined the supporting choir, including nba stars and Olympic champions.

But will Osaka’s decision cause lasting change?

Despite the solidarity of other athletes, some sports experts criticized what they saw as a slow and inadequate response from tennis authorities.

French tennis officials initially threatened to suspend Osaka and fined him $ 15,000 for not participating in media interviews during the tournament.

However, on Tuesday, all four Grand Slam tournaments issued a joint statement praising Osaka for sharing their experience and promising to make things better for the players.

“On behalf of the Grand Slam, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way we can as she walks away from the pitch,” the group said in a statement. “Mental health is a very difficult problem, which deserves our greatest attention.”

The tennis community is committed to creating “significant improvement” for players at all tournaments, the statement added, although it does not outline specific steps.

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“The French Open handled the situation terribly and injured themselves and tennis in the process,” Dan Kilvington, co-creator of the Talking Race podcast, told NBC News.

“Rather than reaching out and supporting Osaka, tennis has decided to sanction her. That has to change.”

Kilvington said some of the media obligations faced by female tennis players were “outdated” and Osaka was under “further scrutiny” for their positions, highlighting race and sanity.

“We need to understand the added pressure on minority ethnic athletes competing in predominantly white spaces like tennis. It becomes a representational burden,” Kilvington said.

At last year’s US Open, Osaka wore masks emblazoned with “George Floyd” and “Breonna Taylor” highlighting police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement to fans around the world.

Naomi Osaka of Japan wears a mask with George Floyd’s name on it during an interview following her victory in the women’s singles quarterfinal on day nine of the 2020 US Open.Matthew Stockman / Getty Images File

“The added responsibility of being a role model and pioneer of ethnic minority background was overlooked by the organizers of the event,” Kilvington added.

“The very fact that blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety has been ignored.”

Osaka’s sponsors, including Nike and Mastercard, also praised his courage in sharing his mental health experiences.

Executives of the Japan Tennis Association have said Osaka’s health should be a top priority, and a Japanese government official, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, told a press conference on Tuesday that he would “watch over her quietly.”

But for some critics, sports stars shouldn’t be given special treatment given the riches on offer, while Osaka’s race and gender shouldn’t be relevant.

“Are prominent women of color free from criticism, regardless of their conduct? Sorry, I must have missed that wake-up memo! »Tweeted British journalist Piers Morgan.

“I have a problem with figures who exploit the media for huge financial gain and then attack the same media and use sanity as a weapon to silence the critics,” he said in a statement. separate tweet after writing a newspaper column on the matter this week.

Kevin Hylton, professor emeritus of equality and diversity in sport at the British University of Leeds Beckett, called for better “pastoral support” for tennis players, but acknowledged that athletes have a “symbiotic relationship” with the global media.

He said the topic of mental health was becoming increasingly discussed in other sports, such as boxing and rugby.

“Athletes are more than willing to talk about mental health, but the key is whether their sports are ready to listen,” Hylton told NBC News.

As a woman of color, Osaka would likely face issues of racism that her white counterparts wouldn’t face, Hylton added, affecting her “psyche” and mental well-being.

“Too many people will keep these issues hidden. We need people to come forward,” Hylton said. “I think Naomi Osaka has done the world of tennis and sport a favor.”