During her first press conference since withdrawing from the French Open, tennis champion Naomi Osaka answered questions about her preparation routine and the recent earthquake in Haiti — but she was left shaken after one sports columnist pushed her on her anxiety surrounding the press. Osaka was visibly emotional after discussing media attention, and ended up stepping out for a moment before finishing the conference.
"You're not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform," asked The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty. "So my question is, how do you balance the two?"
Osaka asked Daugherty to clarify, and then repeat the question. Ultimately, she shared that it's difficult to answer because she "can't help" the media attention she's received for years as a star athlete. "But I would also say I'm not really sure how to balance the two. I'm figuring it out at the same time as you are, I would say," she said. It was after the exchange that she started tearing up.
Osaka didn't have a choice over whether or not she had a media platform after reaching a certain level of success as an athlete. And she didn't choose to have to “balance” her anxiety and her now-massive platform, which she has used to speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Osaka — a four-time Grand Slam champion — did, however, earn that platform through countless wins on the court. But that truth aside, Osaka shouldn't have to explain her anxiety about press conferences, especially in the middle of a press conference.
In a statement shared with CNN, Osaka's agent, Stuart Duguid, called Daugherty a "bully" who intended to "intimidate" her. "And this insinuation that Naomi owes her off-court success to the media is a myth," he added. "Don't be so self-indulgent."
"The bully at The Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now," he said in a text message. "Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong, and his sole purpose was to intimidate." Daugherty wrote on Twitter that he has "never bullied anyone my entire life," and he praised Osaka's "honest, thoughtful" response in his subsequent column published Tuesday.
In May, Osaka shared on Instagram that she would be opting out of press conferences in order to prioritize her mental health. She was fined $15,000 and criticized by pundits like Candace Owens, Megyn Kelly, and Piers Morgan, who called her an "arrogant spoiled brat." (Perhaps Morgan believes Osaka should have just angrily stormed off in the middle of a press conference.) In the wake of all the criticism, Osaka withdrew from the French Open altogether, writing that she never intended to be a distraction — and clarifying that she struggles with depression and anxiety.
Thanks to trailblazers like Osaka and Simone Biles, who recently stepped back from several Olympic event finals, we're seeing more and more conversations about the importance of athletes' mental health. We're acknowledging that Osaka and Biles are real people who just want to play and excel at their sports; we're talking about the extreme pressure and scrutiny these champions face. But Osaka and Biles are people before they are public figures, and they are people before they are athletes. And, like every other person, Osaka deserves to set her boundaries without explaining or rationalizing them.