The postgame news conference — long viewed as a fruitful enterprise for reporters and a nuisance for many of the athletes answering questions — is a staple of sports unlike other forms of entertainment. No musician or actor has to immediately dissect a performance in front of a swarm of media. And if there was a way for a player such as Hernández to lessen the burden, he was happy to cut his obligations short by speaking only Spanish.
The debate over the utility of this ritual — and the broader relationship between reporters and athletes — was renewed by Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam winner who announced last week that she would not participate in post-match news conferences during this year’s tournament, citing concerns about her mental health.
The French Open responded by fining her $15,000 after she won her first-round match; all four Grand Slams issued a menacing statement that promised to escalate the penalties, including potentially a suspension; and Osaka withdrew, this time detailing bouts of depression and the anxiety she felt facing a room of reporters.
Her decision left sports and the journalists who cover them grappling with questions about what athletes owe the press and, in turn, what leagues and tournaments owe the players. Those questions are not new but are made trickier to navigate as the power dynamics between athletes and the media shift rapidly and athletes, in increasing numbers, are speaking out about their struggles with their mental health — and their personhood, in general.
To win a Grand Slam tennis tournament usually requires eight news conferences: one before the tournament and then one after each match won. Players answer questions about their health, strategy, opponents, strengths in their game and weaknesses, too.
The policy was put in place in 1990 when the ATP Tour, which oversees the men’s worldwide tour, was formed and the Grand Slam committee wrote a new rule book for the four tennis slams. Bill Babcock, who wrote the rule book, said in an interview that the penalty of fining players was included because in the 1980s, as an executive with the previous governing body of men’s tennis, he had seen the value of a traveling press corps to promoting the sport.
“It was a recognition that you can’t have players deciding not to see the press if they have a bad day,” he said. “It was an important obligation to respect and work with the media.”
Babcock retired last year. In his three decades as director of the Grand Slam Board, he said, 10 women and 13 men had been fined for missing press obligations. None were memorable occurrences, he said, usually resulting from a logistical issue, like a player trying to hop on an early flight.
Osaka’s declaration, however, set off a firestorm over the value of the work reporters do.
Jane McManus, director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College and a sports reporter, said she was torn about Osaka’s refusal. Mental health is an important consideration, she said, but she worried about the effect on women’s sports if the biggest stars don’t talk to reporters.
“There is interest in these tournaments because of the stars like Osaka,” McManus said. “If she’s not talking to reporters, will there be as much coverage for the next Naomi Osaka?”
Osaka, who is both immensely famous and famously introverted, is facing a year when she will be under intense scrutiny. Before withdrawing, she was trying to win her first French Open and is expected to attempt the same at Wimbledon. She has a U.S. Open title to defend, and the Olympics are in her home country of Japan. She has also been a vocal activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, wearing the names of police shooting victims on her masks during last year’s U.S. Open.
“The pressures are enormous,” said Howard Bryant, a writer and commentator for ESPN who has covered tennis. “She’s awkward anyway. And she’s in the middle of a movement that much of America is hostile to.”
In other words, the questions Osaka was set to face were going to be hard.
Bryant also said that her decision came at a moment when more and more athletes are less interested in submitting to questions from reporters, preferring instead to communicate through their own social media platforms and production companies. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets was fined twice this season for not speaking to the media. “I do not talk to Pawns,” he wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. “My attention is worth more.”
Reporters, who were once thought to be instrumental in promoting sports and athletes, are now facing an existential threat to how they do their jobs, driven by athletes who appreciate their roles less and a pandemic that closed locker rooms and cut their traditional access.
“As a journalist, you have to advocate for access,” McManus said.
Osaka’s comments caused others to want to reexamine that access, particularly in a news conference setting. In tennis, especially, the ritual can prove awkward, with the media peppering teenagers as young as 15 with questions about their performance.
Olbermann said the idea that sports reporters have an unfettered right to access is misguided and a fundamental misunderstanding of an athlete’s job responsibilities. He recalled Dick Young, an influential New York columnist at the time, referring to Dick Ruthven and Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies as “mental hemorrhoids” during the 1980 World Series because they didn’t speak to the press.
“It’s an entitlement,” Olbermann said. “I’ve never understood the almost religious fervor with which reporters have believed they have an inalienable right to access every athlete after every game. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a fan who was upset with a player for not talking.”
Plenty of beat reporters, of course, would disagree, noting that fans get all sorts of valuable insights into big plays and moments from their postgame questions.
Rennae Stubbs, a former tennis pro turned ESPN commentator, said tennis majors have become over-credentialed, which has led to worse questions in the interview rooms — including journalists asking female players about their clothing. If the tournaments tightened their credential requirements, she said, the interview rooms would be more professional.
Stubbs said post-match interviews produced for television serve a clearer purpose to players than news conferences because networks pay huge sums to broadcast the tournaments, which in turn deliver prize money to players. Osaka, after her first-round victory at the French Open, spoke on the court to a TV reporter before declining to do her news conference.
“They pay a ton of money that puts money into the pockets of those players,” Stubbs said. “That is a marriage that needs to continue and constantly be used and validated. The print media? Can you write a story about a match without a quote from a player? I’m sure you’ve been to many press conferences and you look and say, ‘What the [expletive] kind of question is that?’ ”
The dueling statements by Osaka and the French Open underscore the tension. The French Open, when it announced its fine for Osaka, cited two articles in its code of conduct that govern players’ behavior.
Osaka wrote: “[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.”
The distance between the two gets to a fundamental question in sports: Who makes the game?
“What’s also happening here is players are asking, ‘Are we partners or are we employees?’ ” Bryant said.
It’s not only about mental health. Especially amid the pandemic and social unrest, athletes are asking fans and leagues to see them more as people instead of robotic performers. In the wake of recent bad fan behavior at NBA games, the Nets’ Kevin Durant said: “When you come to these games, you’ve got to realize, these men are human. We’re not animals. We’re not in a circus.”
And as star athletes continue to grow in popularity relative to their sports, with bigger platforms that bypass traditional media, they will only grow more powerful in determining how they’re viewed and in setting the terms by which they work — including how and when they talk to the press. If that results in less journalism about the athletes, that will be a loss — for reporters and plenty of fans. But it’s increasingly clear that it’s no longer up to the journalists.