Naomi Osaka gained notoriety in 2018, when she defeated Serena Williams in the United States Open tournament. This came as a shock to many, as Williams is a star tennis player and Osaka was only 20 years old at the time. Osaka also claimed Williams as one of her role models, and it isn’t often people get to beat their heroes.
But Osaka wasn’t met with a round of applause, in fact the reaction was far from it. The boos from the crowd were loud and persistent enough for Williams to feel the need to ask the audience to stop. Osaka stood with her visor pulled over her eyes as she cried. She apologized for winning in her victory speech.
I’m not a tennis fan, but I am a Naomi Osaka fan. Osaka won me over with her personality first, her skills second. I watched compilation videos of her interviews and was charmed by her humorous and awkward demeanor. I saw a lot of myself in her.
When Osaka took to social media on May 26 to announce she wouldn’t be speaking to the press during the French Open, I was shocked. This meant there wouldn’t be videos of Osaka sheepishly smiling as she answered questions. This meant that there would be a significant lack of humor, that only Osaka could bring, in the press room.
But ultimately, the tennis star made the decision to put herself first, as she should. In the statement Osaka discussed athletes’ mental health being undermined when they are asked questions that “bring doubt” into their minds, and organizations disregard for the athletes that are the “centerpiece” of the corporations.
Osaka was swiftly fined $15,000 by the French Open tournament, and was warned that she would be penalized further if she did not speak to the media. Including a default loss.
On May 31, five days after Osaka’s initial statement, she took to social media again to announce that she would withdraw from the French Open. Osaka stated that she never intended to become a “distraction” and believed that withdrawing was the best option for the tournament, other players and herself. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka stated.
Outside of the bravery that Osaka displayed in making this decision and her transparency regarding her struggles with mental health, her statement hit home with me for two reasons.
One, Osaka apologizes to journalists. “I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt,” Osaka’s post read. I may be biased, but Osaka making this remark is incredibly touching. It’s proof that this wasn’t a decision fueled by apathy towards interviews. Osaka developed friendly enough relationships with some journalists that she felt the need to apologize for putting her mental health first. While it is a shame that Osaka felt the need to do this, it shows her gratitude to the people that helped boost her popularity.
Secondly, Osaka wants to see the organization improve for all players. “… when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans,” Osaka added. Osaka recognizes her pull as the currently most talked about tennis player, and the highest paid female athlete. And she seems determined to use this pull to enforce a system that will care for players.
While Osaka’s decision was met with some criticism, the lesson she is teaching sports organizations, and everyone else, is significant. She is showing sports organizations that athletes aren’t just sources of entertainment. Organizations are ultimately reliant on star athletes to garner audience attention. If these athletes aren’t appreciated enough to be heard when they open up about mental health struggles, and they have already earned their money (as Osaka clearly has), why would they stick around?
Her stand can teach everyone that your mental health is not worth sacrificing for a paycheck. Current culture tells young adults especially to “get money now, rest later”. Though we all clearly must work to obtain basic needs, sacrificing oneself for monetary goods or an employer will eventually come at a cost.
Osaka seemed to be near a breaking point, but she ultimately chose herself. Eventually most of us will be forced to choose between a job and our mental health. Perhaps Osaka can teach us the importance of self preservation.