Sibusiso Mjikeliso | Naomi Osaka vs 'free press': A no-win game with sufferers at either side of the net

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Naomi Osaka. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Naomi Osaka versus "free press" incident is another teachable moment thrust upon the media through a regrettable incident, writes Sibusiso Mjikeliso.


The obligatory press conference is such a curiously mundane setting that, when tennis superstar Naomi Osaka first mentioned her intention to boycott them at the French Open last week, it raised no more than a slight eyebrow initially, before things deteriorated to the point of her untimely tournament exit

Why would something - the press conference - that often neither journalist nor athlete wants to participate in elicit such a strong response from the women's world No 2 and four-time Grand Slam winner?

And why would the pushback from tournament organisers and the press be so brutal and bereft of understanding?

Osaka, simply, wanted to protect her mental health. Surely, any sane and compassionate human being should understand, media practitioner or not, and seek to engage with her to develop something suitable and workable for all parties?

READ | Other sports stars who have suffered depression

The Roland Garros organisers, who have a tournament, sport and sponsors' interests to protect, instituted a fine as a result, which Osaka had no issue forfeiting. It should have ended there. 

But the written press, as is our proclivity, used the might of the pen to push back against her in tones that suggested, "How dare she disobey us? We will show her she is not bigger than the game."

People such as Piers Morgan and others whose over-inflated egos were stung wanted to say to Osaka that she is not bigger than the press, not necessarily the game of tennis.

The problem here begins in the newsroom, where there are many (definitely not all) journalists and editors that think like Morgan, who called Osaka the "world sport's most petulant little madam". He opened his column by mentioning how much money she earns, as if to say she is undeserving of her millions.

The newsroom creates Morgans; entitled bullies stuffed like pigs with self-importance and toxicity. Their attitudes often spill over into glib press conferences, where they have to exercise their "might" against the athlete.

"Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel," said Mark Twain.

As a "real journalist", you're taught to be cold, ruthless and unfeeling. It is not a setting where your mental health or that of others can be laid out in the open for everyone to discuss compassionately.

There is a syndicated and purposeful scything you down to size to scrape you of all sensitivities you might feel about the prying daily work you conduct, so that you feel less sympathy when you unleash your own venom on the people you write about.

Not everyone turns into a Morgan, of course, but a lot of journalists do. Likewise, not all newsrooms are toxic. In fact, the instantaneous social media reaction whenever we've erred leads to swift self-correctness and a change in newsroom practices that is both necessary and refreshing.

However, traditionally, the newsroom is a desperately unpleasant place - one that causes so much fear, anxiety and depression - and it's no wonder young talented writers, and creatives leave the industry not long after they experience its coldness.

Those who opt not to subject themselves to an editor berating and humiliating them are often branded as "soft" or told they "can't cut it as journalists".

Sometimes, I compare the person I was when I wanted to become a writer to the journalist I eventually became. The two are estranged.

At a basic level, a press conference is where the journalist is meant to seek understanding and information from a more knowledgeable subject, i.e., Osaka, the superior athlete of her generation.

Nobody sitting across from her table is more qualified to speak on the game than she is, even writers who've penned about tennis since the days when women were forbidden from participating.

Yet, the media has deceived the athlete into thinking it's the other way around.

This first point addresses how journalists become who they become. However, one must note that Osaka said she never received ill-treatment from the press in Paris.

She only said her press anxiety was borne from her 2018 US Open finals incident during the match against Serena Williams, in which the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, could take a chunk of the blame for how things deteriorated.

Osaka's sister, Mari, also hinted in a deleted social media post that the clay-court slam, where she's never made it past the third round, contributed to her trepidation about facing a media inquest after each game.

Reasons for the athlete vs press tie-break

There is a level of understanding required from both ends of the court; athlete and press.

The press box is filled with silent mental health sufferers (holds a mirror up) who dread the prospect of saying the wrong thing when asking a question to an athlete or coach, for fear, sometimes, of their own colleagues' wrath or their voracious editor, who "wants something" from the quotidian press conference.

If you come back to the newsroom - it always comes back to the newsroom - with "nothing", you could be subjected to a scathing tongue lashing from your boss.

The pressure to produce a headline-grabbing story is immense and unrelenting. Yet, as demonised as it's been in the last few days, the press conference is not even the best setting, journalistically, to get a good quality story from.

That would be a one-on-one in-person interview, and Osaka hasn't given too many of those to mainstream media, either, since her breakthrough 2018 season.

Nobody has the time to give 100 individual in-person interviews to each press corps member. Hence everyone is lumped together into what must feel like facing a firing squad if you're Osaka.

By all accounts, a press conference is necessary and unavoidable.

Granted, athletes these days communicate directly with their fans, but they express that which is sanitised to project a specific marketable image of themselves and their sponsors.

Nobody will objectively probe why Osaka has struggled on clay on Instagram in a way that both challenges and informs the reader or spectator, who is part-shareholder in sport's eco-system.

That's the press's duty.

Their available platform is the press conference unless you're one of those privileged enough to be allowed into athletes' inner sanctum for an in-person interview - an ever-contracting space that shrank with the rise of sports professionalism and decimated by the digital revolution.

Put people together who are all under pressure in a claustrophobic setting, who are unwilling to understand each other's roles and have limited time in which to conduct their duties, then you're bound to have an adversarial interaction that's detrimental to anyone's mental health.

By recent evidence, she is comfortable giving a post-match interview to the rights-holding television interviewer immediately after the game - who is no less a press official just because he conducts his business standing.

Osaka also did an off-court interview with Japanese broadcaster Wowow, with whom she has a contract before she left Paris.

The press conference is also one of the significant ways sponsors get their mileage for their buck, which goes into sustaining tournaments like the French Open and the sport as a whole.

Left to their own devices, athletes and teams will only promote the brands associated with them personally. So, what happens to Roland Garros' backers?

Should they forgo the marketing mileage they would receive by having print, online, multimedia, and television journalists report on the match events because the entire ordeal is unnerving for Osaka?

These are some of the pertinent questions that need to be asked, as we all try to learn and grow from this unfortunate experience, which, sooner or later, will affect South African athletes, too, who have felt the same way as Osaka.

The threats to ban her from all major competitions came from major tournament organisers of the French, US Open, Wimbledon and Australian, by the way, not from the media.

However, the suits were undoubtedly driven by the fear of having the 23-year-old megastar set "a dangerous precedent" - to empower other athletes to do the same.

Player power vs waning media power

Since the advent of social media, the all-conquering written media, which held a monopoly over public opinion, has seen their influence shrink faster than the demand for public pay telephone booths.

It's frightening to see newspapers close down, colleagues retrenched, and eyeballs dragging advertisers to Google, Facebook and Twitter.

There is a lot of insecurity in the media industry at the moment, from which inevitable pushback against Osaka's decision might originate.

From Osaka's vantage, her marketability was built more from her Instagram following than front-page splashes. 

Those inquisitive press conference men and women that are given licence to ask whatever question they like before and after each game threaten her mental wellness.

It's nobody's place to question the validity of her mental health struggles.

She is the embodiment of a generation of athletes that has wrested their power from mainstream media, much like NBA superstar and Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving.

The modern athlete is self-aware and brave in fights for social equality.

In many ways, Osaka is more courageous than the journalist who couldn't stand up to their editor for fear of losing their job or tarnishing their future job prospects.

If her disillusion was directed at anyone else but the press, we'd all be writing about how much of a hero she was, hoisting her as a Gen Z Harriet Tubman.

Unfortunately, her fight is against archaic practices of the very people Mark Twain said never to pick battles with. It's a tie-break with no winners at the end.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24. 

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