Naomi Osaka Is Here To Remind Us: Work Won’t Love You Back

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Naomi Osaka

One might say that tennis champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open under duress. It started last Wednesday, when Osaka notified her fans — in a now-deleted Instagram post — that she would not be attending post-game press conferences during the tournament. She cited concerns for her own mental health — specifically the stress she feels when speaking with the media. Osaka said she was prepared to pay any fines her decision incurred, and requested that the money be donated to a charity devoted to mental health. Despite her reasonable and clearly articulated decision, the backlash was swift and brutal, with TV commentators calling her an “arrogant spoiled brat” and op-ed writers mocking her “diva behavior”. For its part, the French Open fined the 23-year-old supernova $15,000 and, in collaboration with the other Grand Slam tournaments, threatened her with future game suspensions if she continued to avoid the press. 

Despite the disproportionately mean-spirited reaction to Osaka’s request to focus on the game, it still came as a surprise when, earlier this week, the highest-paid female athlete in the world withdrew from the French Open altogether. The reigning champion of both the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, she is ranked second in the world in her sport. This tournament might have been hers to lose. But in her refusal to bend to the tournament’s outdated rules, Osaka demonstrated her understanding of a lesson that more of us could stand to learn: Work won’t love you back, and there is real value in opting out of work that is actively harming your mental well-being — no matter how big the paycheck. 

In her final statement, released Tuesday, Osaka made it clear that her decision was something she was doing to care for her mental health. The tennis phenom has been open about her struggles with anxiety and depression. She has also been subject to intense media scrutiny since she burst onto the scene in 2018. When a relatively unknown Osaka bested Serena Willams at the U.S. Open that year in a contentious match — her first major title win — Osaka took the podium to face a stadium full of boos. It’s not hard to see how experiencing something so bittersweet, at such a young age, would make her wary of publicity and press attention. Especially when the match’s outcome would inspire some to lob racist attacks against her idol-turned-opponent. 

Osaka’s recent decision was clearly a long time in the making, and not one she took lightly. After years of internalizing racialized cruelty and disregard, she finally took matters into her own hands. In her statement, she called out the format of the press conferences themselves. She specifically interrogated why she should be tasked with answering the same inane inquiries over and over, or deal with journalists asking questions meant to undermine her skill and confidence. To be as good as Osaka, at so elevated a level, requires intense mental and physical focus. Is it really any wonder that she would want to avoid situations that in her mind, feel calibrated to rattle and diminish her? Most people in public-facing roles also have to suffer through draining media obligations, so Osaka is not alone. But even actors and musicians are at least spared the indignity of an immediate post-performance grilling. They can generally count on setting up interviews to suit their own schedule, or reading a review in the privacy of their own home. Not so for Osaka.

As news of Osaka’s withdrawal made its way across social media, a clip from a 1995 Venus Williams interview went viral yet again. In it, Venus’s father Richard upbraids a white male journalist for questioning his 14-year-old daughter’s confidence, and implying that she is too young to be so sure of herself. In the white, male world of tennis, a young Black woman excelling at the sport was an anomaly. More than 25 years have passed since that interview, yet things remain more or less the same. Osaka, who is Black and Japanese, is being asked to do her best work in an environment teeming with insidious micro-aggressive racism.

In the last several years, more and more Black athletes have been making the news for declining to do press interviews. Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving was slapped with a $25,000 fine late last year for refusing to speak to the media at training camp. And in 2015, footballer Marshawn Lynch famously answered all post-game media questions with the now iconic, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” And let’s not forget the treatment footballer Richard Sherman received after a 2014 post-game interview, in which the cornerback unapologetically asserted his skill and professional dominance. Viewers took to social media expressing outrage and fear, implying that he had “terrified” the white female reporter who was conducting the interview. For Black athletes, the message seems to be clear: You are obligated to use your voice, but only in ways that white media deems appropriate. Withholding your voice is no less a transgression than using it “incorrectly.” 

As this pattern emerges, it’s worth asking why so many Black athletes are coming to the conclusion that engaging with the press doesn’t serve them. Their critics insist that giving interviews is simply part of a professional athlete’s job. Technically speaking, they’re right. Press obligations are written into the contracts that most, if not all of these athletes, signed. But just as so many other workers have rethought — in a global pandemic — how work should operate, Osaka and her contemporaries are questioning the very frameworks under which they labor. Why are press conferences part of the job? And what does it say that having done them, Osaka would rather not do the job at all than speak to the press? Surely it’s an indication that the press itself is more than a small part of the problem. 

As Osaka doubtlessly knows, no amount of prize money is worth sacrificing one’s mental health. Osaka’s only moral obligation is to play to the best of her ability. Everything else is gravy. She can’t play well if she’s struggling anyway, so what would be the point? It’s not hard to draw a connection between Osaka and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. Markle, herself so besieged by relentless negative press that she considered taking her own life, ended up leaving the royal family in order to protect herself and her family. No privilege in the world is worth continually exposing oneself to situations that feed upon depression and anxiety. As Black women, they both know all too well that there’s nothing they can do that will get the press on their side. Disengaging with the press is a matter of self-preservation. 

In a landscape where most public figures have a direct line of access to their fans and supporters, the traditional media conference is nothing more than an outdated formality. If sports media wants to prove its necessity, it needs to demonstrate that it can do something an athlete with an Instagram account can’t. With the world recovering from the greatest public health crisis in a generation, established norms about what work should look like have been entirely upended. More and more people are recognizing that they don’t have to settle for the old status quo. Everyday people are taking a stand against the “hustle or die” mentality we’ve been socialized to accept by quitting jobs that don’t allow them to cultivate a healthy work-life balance. Osaka is no different. She decided that if risking her mental health was part of the job, then she’d rather not do the job. That refusal is powerful, and one can only hope that more and more of those watching will follow her lead. 

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