All hell broke loose the moment superstar tennis player Naomi Osaka announced that she would not attend any press conferences during the French Open to protect her mental health.
Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete globally, was fined $15,000 and was threatened with harsher consequences before she dropped out of the tournament completely.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
While Osaka has received support from athletes such as Serena Williams and Stephen Curry, many athletes, sports journalists, and tennis fans can’t fathom the thought of an athlete struggling with mental illness.
Osaka revealed that she had been grappling with depression and anxiety since 2018 and wanted to practice self-care by not attending press conferences. Her withdrawal sparked a huge debate over athletes and mental health, and both supporters and critics are very opinionated on how the matter should have been handled.
Some feel that Osaka could have been more professional by going to French Open officials directly. Others feel that tennis officials and the media are to blame for creating even more attention for the athlete struggling with anxiety.
Many psychologists say that Osaka could be regarded as a pioneer for speaking up and establishing boundaries in an aggressive environment that is often dubious of wounds that are not physical, and for risking her career and challenging tennis, media, and the public on their perceptions of athletes.
Much of the outrage directed at Osaka reveals how the public still struggles with its perception of mental health, and how athletes, especially BIPOC athletes, are viewed more as entertainment and property rather than humans.
A reply to Osaka’s withdrawal announcement on social media read, “You do have one of the very best jobs in the whole world to be able to swing a racket at a ball professionally. Makes me think that you should sit down to answer questions no matter win or lose, it’s a minuscule part of your job.”
Mental health experts say that many factors play into how someone responds to pressure including age, personality, gender identity, and racial identity.
This may be an opportunity for people to change their views and expectations of athletes. It is also a chance to change the culture of media surrounding athletes, which often catches them in their most vulnerable moments, through wins and losses.
Though Osaka’s withdrawal is and should be primarily about her own mental health, her actions are opening a doorway in how athletes set boundaries and speak up for their own health.