First things first: Naomi Osaka is right. Whatever you think of her decisions at this year’s French Open, her mental health comes first. She is the only one who knows what she is feeling, and the accompanying struggles. The tough choices she has made over the past week have been the right ones for her. Let’s cut her some slack.
Her decision not to speak to the press pre-tournament, and subsequent decision to withdraw from the competition, will hopefully be a pivotal moment of reform when it comes to communications around sporting events.
Even with the prevalence of social media, the world’s media still has an important role to play. They tell stories, they offer insight, they create coverage, they mediate between the sport and the public. They hold people accountable and ask questions to reveal the truth, the facts. The news.
Sometimes the questions will be tough, asking individuals to self-reflect or turn a spotlight on something they don’t want to reveal. It’s at these moments where professional communications support, guidance and media relations is critical, not only for the competitors but for all the stakeholders involved in an event.
Athletes have one sole focus: to compete and win. Media work is often seen as a distraction or a nuisance. Why is that? Because it doesn’t make an athlete perform better, run faster, hit harder, drive faster, score more. Because it’s not enjoyable. Is that because the medium is wrong? In 2021, who wants archaic press conferences with repetitive questioning and interrogation? Is the media agenda too focused on the negatives, the controversy or the downsides? Are we still too busy trying to sell papers with attention grabbing headlines rather than telling engaging, human interest stories that resonate through digital channels?
It’s time to provide better support to athletes for whom media relations does not come naturally. Let’s try to understand the mental stresses and strains that come with competing at the pinnacle of sport. Let’s re-imagine press conferences into something that doesn’t take away editorial integrity and journalistic freedom, but which doesn’t become a burden or pressure point for the participants.
Athletes should appreciate and respect the importance of media coverage and the role that quality journalism plays. Sports bodies, too, need to respect the pressure under which athletes place themselves to perform, and the mental struggles that can bring. Journalists need to be considerate to get the soundbites and insight they want without descending into the troll-like behaviours all too often seen on social media. This is an issue of mutual trust and respect between different stakeholders, all of whom share the same goals: to promote the positive attributes of sport, to generate interest and excitement in competition, and to make some money along the way. In the case of Naomi Osaka, lessons will need to be learned on all sides but that ideally should be done out of the media spotlight.