Tennis star Naomi Osaka announced before the French Open, one of only four tennis “Majors” each year, that she wouldn’t be partaking in media sessions during the tournament.
Osaka cited that she didn’t like the fact that media questions could plant doubt in the mind of athletes, especially one like her, who has dealt with anxiety during her career. Osaka also noted how she’s seen other players break down after answering media questions, and that she was tired of answering the same questions over and over again.
There was considerable backlash.
Not wanting to talk to the media is fine – unless you’re a professional athlete.
The media, and the attention they create by talking about / criticizing / debating athletes, draws massive attention to sports. That attention is brilliantly monetized by professional sports leagues and organizations, who are then equipped to pay players massive amounts of money.
This is especially true in individual sports like tennis and golf. Tennis and golf events would fly far under my radar if it weren’t for ESPN and social media making stories out of whatever is happening. I know the names “Tiger” and “Serena” because the media told me I should care.
That’s why making yourself available to the media is in your contract.
Love or hate the media, that attention is worth money. Even if I don’t buy anything, my eyeballs equal TV ratings. Those ratings increase the deals organizations make with TV companies (like ABC and ESPN). The majority of the money athletes earn is because of the TV audiences. Those audiences are driven by the media.
The repetitive and sometimes nonsensical questions coming from the media, especially after a loss, are a bitch to deal with. I understand and have experienced the frustration of having to answer dumb questions from people – media, fans, whoever – after they all just watched me lose a game. No competitor wants to sit and explain themselves after they just got their ass kicked publicly. Naomi Osaka is no exception.
It’s still part of the job.
Some athletes don’t like this part of the job, and that’s fine. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets made a similar statement before the NBA season, referring to media members as “pawns” and saying that he preferred not to speak to them (Kyrie’s silence fine from the NBA: $25,000; Kyrie changed his stance soon after). Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Not only is talking to the media part of the pro athlete’s job, it’s a big reason why the job is what it is.
In the western world, professional athletes get the attention they get in part because non-athletes – the spectators – know (or have an idea) of the money that comes with the job.
The western world values what you have, materially, over anything else about you. Jimmy Kimmel makes more in a year than every school teacher in your state because of how much we value entertainment (such as watching sports), and because we rank jobs based on what the practitioners get for doing those jobs.
When a college student DMs me asking what they should major in at university to “get a good job” after school, they’re not talking about happiness. They’re asking about remuneration.
Naomi Osaka earned $37 million in 2019, the most any female athlete had EVER earned in a year. She’s one of the top-rated players in the world, so her game has a lot to do with that number. But how many people do you know who have game, yet are still unknown?
The media created the attention around her.
Money follows attention.
Naomi was fined $15,000 by the French Open for following through on her threat and skipping media availability, and threatened with larger fines and even suspensions from events if her silence continued.
Maybe Naomi has held onto enough of her money that it wouldn’t matter – to her.
Here’s why it does matter.
If Naomi Osaka plays in a tennis tournament, and it is known that she will not be speaking to the media before, during or after, fewer media will come to that event. It’ll be talked about less on TV. People like me, who don’t follow tennis, will hardly know the event even happened.
And why does this matter? Because the trickle down effect is less money for ALL tennis players on the WTA Tour, and the Tour itself.
The average CAREER earnings for a tennis pro (male or female) is $300,000. That’s before food, travel, trainers (all paid out-of-pocket by the player) and taxes. Most tennis pros don’t make close to what Osaka makes. If she doesn’t do her part to draw and serve the media, the entire pie gets smaller for everyone.
If Naomi cares about the future of the sport, she can’t be selfish.
Oh, but wait. That’s an insensitive statement. Mental Health, Mental Health, MENTAL HEALTH.
Naomi pulled out of the French Open, citing mental health concerns, after the fine for her media boycott. At that point, the social media narrative around the story changed.
Now, anyone who criticized Osaka clearly doesn’t yet understand the importance and value of mental health the way we accept and value physical health.
Here’s a quote from Osaka’s original boycott announcement:
“If the organizations think that they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
A few things.
1) This is a false dichotomy. Telling someone to do their job is not ignoring their mental health. You can care for someone’s mental health while still reminding them that not doing their job – for whatever reason – comes at a price. You can’t not do your job and expect the same pay.
This is a fair and true law of the universe, like it or not.
2) Osaka’s original statement used the word “athletes” a lot. I interpreted this as her wanting to take a stand for all athletes; a cause she was picking up. All fair game, if that’s what you wanna do with your time. It was only after the penalties came (fines, suspension threats) that it became about her personal mental health.
3) The tone of the original announcement itself is kind of cocky; I’m-gonna-do-this-and-who’s-gonna-stop-me-ish. I’m the last person who’ll criticize cockiness. But, if you walk into a situation with that energy, KEEP that same energy.
Naomi laid down the gauntlet. Her gambit simply failed.
Read Osaka’s original statement for yourself. She was standing up for athletes in general, leveraging her position as a top player to push for the “new normal” opting out of media sessions (and mentioning her past mental health challenges as justification). Four days later when the backlash and penalties came, she tweeted, “anger is a lack of understanding. change makes people uncomfortable.”
Straight out of the Woke playbook. I don’t read that playbook, but I don’t mind she does (she does).
Another Woke tactic: labeling fair criticism “anger” because you represent “change.”
If Naomi Osaka really wanted to create change, she would have sat down with the tennis organizations and voiced her concerns directly to them, not to social media. She would have spoken with them when they tried to contact her after her announcement (and before the tournament), instead of ignoring them as she did.
She had an idea – boycott the media. She floated her test balloon on social media and got approval. She executed her plan flawlessly. It blew up in her face. That’s it.
She was right: change does make people uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the tennis organizations made her uncomfortable right back. And she went from bold to apologetic.
When Osaka pulled out of the tournament, she offered that “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”
There are conflicts in that statement.
If a top professional tennis player doesn’t want to be a distraction, they don’t make new rules just for themselves a week before one of the biggest events in their sport. They don’t ignore the organization who pays them the big bucks when the organization reaches out to talk about it.
(Side note: Osaka is the latest of many athletes to make the “players are the most important aspect of all of this!” claim in defending their actions, as if the athlete is not being valued (another Woke tactic, victimhood). If athletes truly believe this, they’d get together and start their own league / events and keep 100% of the profits instead of splitting them with the organizations. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to why that hasn’t happened yet.)
Osaka is also wrong in saying her timing was not ideal. Her timing was perfect – IF her boycott had worked.
The apologetic tone in her withdrawal statement is for one reason: Because it didn’t work as expected, as Instagram had told her it would. Social media ain’t real life.
One more disagreement.
Her message was perfectly clear: Naomi wanted to bring her version of “player empowerment” to tennis.
Had it worked, she’d be the new hero of Woke athletes (she may still be anyway, for even trying, combined with being minority + female). For now, she’s Colin Kaepernick: Victimized and stigmatized by the establishment for “standing for something.” She’ll make even more money when she returns to the Tour.
Let’s say Osaka’s play eventually does work, and more media availability is no longer required of tennis players.
The attention on tennis goes down, and the money goes down with it. Naomi can likely absorb a 25-50% salary hit. The average tennis pro cannot. That $15,000 fine she paid might be all the money some pros have won over the entire last year.
This is what she didn’t consider when executing her power move.
Hey, maybe this is the first step towards change for athlete-media relations. Maybe there will be a day when players can opt out of speaking to the media. Osaka will be the hero who gets all the credit.
Just note what the story won’t say: how the sport lost revenue and the rank-and-file players who don’t make what she makes couldn’t stay in the sport as a result of such change.
Before you make a move, see the whole chess board.
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