It’s possible to see the events that led tennis superstar Naomi Osaka to drop out of the French Open on Monday as a simple contractual dispute. A worker with leverage didn’t like the duty she was asked to take on (sitting for press conferences) and was willing to take a pay cut (or, in this case, pay a large fine) in order to avoid it. In that case the intransigence from the French Tennis Federation, which runs the tournament, is expected—isn’t handling press just a part of the job for a professional athlete?
But what exactly is Osaka’s job? Between May 2020 and May 2021, she earned $55.2 million, maintaining her status as the highest-paid female athlete in history—the majority of it from endorsements and media partnerships, not prize winnings. Much of her wealth comes from being a public figure, not a tennis player, and as many different types of celebrities have proven in the past decade, media access is no longer a requirement for the very, very famous.
Her rare skill is still an important part of her appeal to the companies that sponsor her, and she clearly continues to care personally about playing and winning. That might be why the threat of expulsion from the competition, along with the Roland-Garros tournament organizers’ aggressive media response, felt somewhat nonsensical. Eventually its account even tweeted and deleted a pretty blatant attack on Osaka in the form of a meme. (“They understood the assignment,” the tweet read, alongside photos of four different players sitting for media.)
It’s common to dismiss celebrities who complain about intrusive press attention, as seen instructively in the backlash to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal exit. For athletes especially, the post-match debriefing with a gaggle of occasionally insensitive reporters is as much a tradition as it is a cog in the machine that keeps sports media running. If the ritual must be defended by threatening a single player who spoke to its psychological cost, it might not actually be as essential as some think. Besides, the French Open has its own complicated history of feuding with athletes. After Serena Williams wore a Nike catsuit to compete in the tournament in 2018, the body-con outfit was later banned. “It will no longer be accepted,” the federation’s president said. “You have to respect the game and the place.”
But the controversy about Osaka’s decision to elude the press also speaks to trends outside of sports. In an era where celebrities have a direct line to the public via social media and are more sensitive about management of their image, it could seem like journalists have a vested interest in holding on to the points of access that do still exist. But to the extent that junkets, press conferences, and other impromptu interviews still exist, they happen because the celebrity has something to get out of it, be it publicity for a project or awards consideration. After the Golden Globe broadcast was canceled by NBC last month, actors like Scarlett Johansson mentioned that they had long disliked interacting with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, though they continued to do it.
When it comes to Grand Slams, players earn their awards on the court, not in front of the mic. It’s not like Osaka is hostile to the press either; in February, she opened up about her relationship with the rapper Cordae in the pages of GQ and shared personal details about her anxiety over winning. As The New Yorker pointed out this week, she has a long history of speaking eloquently in press conferences, even as her emotions have overwhelmed her.
In some ways it seems like Osaka wanted to leverage a situational concern—being too anxious to speak to the press this time around—into a systemic change that could help other athletes in the future. If Osaka had released her more detailed statement about her mental health last week, her decision to avoid the press during the tournament might have attracted less skepticism and led to a different outcome. Still, it seems cruel to force a young woman to come forward with deeply personal information about her depression in exchange for being able to exercise the power she really did earn by being a top player.
She was clearly facing an unattractive set of options. She could either play well and win, or she could follow the rules by interacting with the press, even if the resultant anxiety made her less likely to perform. For someone with at least $15,000 to spare, the amount Osaka was fined on Sunday, the decision would seem pretty simple. What came after that otherwise simple decision meant that Osaka would be blocked from winning—on any terms.
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