If you really care for someone to the point where you “check on her well-being and offer support,” then I suppose it’s nonsense to turn around and fine them $15,000. But that’s exactly what Grand Slam tennis officials did after Naomi Osaka refused to participate in media interviews. The standoff led Osaka to withdraw from the event–and admit to the world via Instagram post that she’d been battling depression since the U.S. Open in 2018.
If any reporter howled and scoffed at Osaka’s initial refusals, you wouldn’t know it from any of the stories surrounding the controversy. Yet it’s somewhat discomforting–kinda like lancing an irritated boil with a pissed off wasp–to know that representatives of the Grand Slam events refused to concede that Osaka’s health and well-being should come first.
Gilles Moretton, president of the French Federation of Tennis, called her withdraw “unfortunate.” Yeah, like, “I went to the salle de bains to wipe my French backside with toilet tissue and the roll was almost gone, so all I got were the flaky squares.” That kind of unfortunate. Here’s a chunk of his statement, courtesy of The New York Times. It’s carefully worded. And carelessly worded:
“We are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. We remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we have always strived to do.”
Yes, but not sorry or sad enough to … I don’t know … refund the fine and maybe donate $15,000 to a group that helps athletes battling mental illness?
Here’s what Osaka said, perhaps in response, in a later social media post:
“If the organizations think they can keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to get fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
Kudos to Times reporter Matthew Futterman for covering the Osaka French Open story in a way that wrapped it in context, noting that…
…As many as 35 percent of elite athletes have suffered from a mental health crisis, such as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety, according to Athletes for Hope, a group that seeks to engage athletes in charitable causes.”
But if anyone thought the issue of athletes, mental illness and the media would go away, all it took was the current Summer Olympics from the parallel COVID-19 universe. Almost as strange as watching Osaka light the Olympic flame in an empty Tokyo stadium was the torching she got on social media after getting knocked out in the second round of play. One commentator, who no doubt works a day gig scrubbing Darth Vader’s toilet on the Death Star, wrote that at the French Open, Osaka “conveniently became ‘depressed.’”
The complaints of human garbage aside, the media faced the issue once again when American gymnast Simone Biles shocked the sporting world by dropping out of the team competition for reasons later tied to mental health. Someone as mentally tough as Diana Nyad–the former Olympian who swam from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage–couldn’t see why Biles would let her teammates down. Was the gymnast being selfish? Nyad was critical but later changed her mind, as she explained in a Washington Post op-ed:
Biles has withdrawn from the individual all-around competition–her sport’s most vaunted individual event. And if the Greatest of All Time, at the Olympic Games that are the supposed and possibly last pinnacle of her career, states that she can’t trust herself, who are we to say otherwise?
Well, many do. And will. And this is where journalism can play a role. My hope is that these two top-of-the-top female athletes, Osaka and Biles, are challenging our assumptions that mental illness is a sign of weakness.
If that’s the bar we’re setting, then I suppose cancer, hemophilia and leukemia should be considered weaknesses, too.
Mental illness at the margins
At a time when much of American society has grown mature enough to know that Black Lives Matter, that the pronouns you use to identify yourself matter, we still have miles to go where mental illness is concerned. If you think cautious, callous HR folks don’t round-file every job application where the prospective employee discloses depression or bipolar disorder I or II, you are simply naive. And if you think the mentally ill should disclose, then why not tell the interviewer for shits and giggles that they once robbed a bank? And see which news flash loses them the job first?
Fans of calling out microaggressions (I’m not one) should ask themselves how often they bandy about words and phrases like “nuts,” “sick in the head” and “screw loose.” Even “bipolar,” half the name of a serious, chronic medical condition, has been appropriated as a slang term. I’ll bet even the most anal-retentive champions of microaggression theory use “bipolar” casually over a laugh and a sloe gin fizz at the university soiree.
On a more benign level, think how callous it sounds when someone tells a mentally ill person, “Chin up.” “Your attitude needs work.” Or: “You should exercise.” Just like Osaka and Biles should, right?
From sports stories to moving the ball forward
Embarking on this piece, I wondered if maybe the media had dropped the ball covering this double-helix intersection of sport and mental health. If anything, I’m reading a lot of thoughtful stories; commentaries such as Nyad’s also win points for showing a willingness to rethink tricky dimensions of the issue.
The media here is doing its job of raising awareness. But without the so-sexy-it-sells flash points of riots, mass suicides or crashing high rises, it will take courage and conviction to dig deeper. I have long maintained that even in an age where political correctness has arguably run amok, those battling mental illness remain safe to marginalize in overt and covert ways.
We can do better. As humans, showing compassion and openness to learn about things we don’t know can move mountains, Of course, we all fall short. Spectacularly.
But sometimes, those of us privileged to be in the media experience a wake up call that comes at just the right time. Whether embodied by a French tennis poobah doing his best impersonation of a callous, clueless, two-faced idiot, or a social media poster who wouldn’t know depression even if they had it, we can see how much work there is to do in turning misinformation into illumination, ignorance into enlightenment.
Maybe Naomi Osaka has lit a flame of a different kind.
SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has a free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information service helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers free, 24/7 crisis support via text message with trained crisis counselors. Text NAMI to 741-741.
If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.
February 14, 2023