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Naomi Osaka, citing mental health concerns, says she won’t do press at French Open

Four-time Grand Slam tournament winner Naomi Osaka announced she would not participate in any news conferences at this year's French Open. (Ettore Ferrari/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Naomi Osaka, a winner of four Grand Slam tournaments and one of the biggest stars in tennis, announced Wednesday that she will not participate in any news conferences during the upcoming French Open.

In explaining her decision on Twitter, Osaka cited concerns about her and other athletes’ mental health, criticizing the dynamic of a group of reporters peppering a player with questions.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for [athletes’] mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Players in most professional sports, including tennis, are contractually required to face questions from reporters at appointed times and can be fined for not doing so. But there is a growing trend of athletes seeking to bypass the traditional media, opting instead to speak directly to fans through their own platforms and on social media.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving was fined twice in recent months for violating the NBA’s media access rules — $25,000 during the lead-up to the season and another $35,000 more recently when he declined to speak to reporters after games.

“[Stop] distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art. We move different over here,” Irving wrote in December. “I do not talk to Pawns. My attention is worth more.”

Osaka, in slightly different terms, expressed a similar sentiment.

“[If] the organizations think they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re gonna get fined’, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote.

Osaka’s refusal to do interviews is a stark departure from a decades-old arrangement between athletes and the media that dates to the heyday of Babe Ruth and the golden age of newspapers. Christy Walsh, often regarded as sports’ first agent, represented Ruth and was famous for placing stories about him in newspapers across the country, helping to make him a household name.

“The Boys of Summer,” a memoir by Roger Kahn about covering the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, romanticized the life of a sportswriter traveling by train from city to city and intimately chronicling the team. Since those days, though, athletes have grown dramatically in celebrity and wealth. Some of the biggest stars now own their production companies; LeBron James stars in a show on HBO, “The Shop,” that he also executive produces.

As author and ESPN commentator Howard Bryant pointed out on Twitter: “[Athletes] will be the executive producers of their documentaries, bankrolled by their corporate partners, and anything independent, dissenting to their narrative will be considered an attack, an intrusion. … Today’s public figures want to control the answers *and* the questions.”

Osaka’s announcement also comes at a moment when the coronavirus pandemic has put the relationship between athletes and reporters in further jeopardy. Beat reporters have been conducting their work by Zoom for the last year, unable to roam locker rooms for nuggets and source-building as they had in the past. Even as fans have returned to parks and arenas, journalists’ access has not been restored, leaving some to wonder whether it ever will be.

The WTA issued a statement Thursday.

“Mental health is of the utmost importance to the WTA and for that matter, every individual person. We have a team of professionals and a support system in place that look after our athletes’ mental and emotional health and well-being. The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete as they manage any concerns related to mental health, while also allowing us to deliver upon our responsibilities to the fans and public. Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.”

A spokesperson for the French Open did not immediately respond to a request for comment.