The controversy around tennis star Naomi Osaka shows yet again what can happen now that the wall between those who create media stories and those who consume them has fallen. It’s not necessarily tragic.
Before Osaka withdrew from the French Open last week, she had announced that she would not address the press during the tournament. After her first-round win on May 30, Osaka indeed skipped the post-match press conference, which triggered the French tennis federation to announce that she would be fined $15,000. She was also warned she may be expelled from the tournament if she continued to refuse to face the press.
Osaka addressed the controversy last June 1 on Twitter, where she has about one million followers. “Here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.” One may argue that skipping the ritual of the post-match press conference means that loyal tennis fans lose the opportunity to read in-depth analysis and observations that help them understand and enjoy the sport more. That’s only part of the story.
The other, equally interesting part is that public figures like tennis stars and other high-profile athletes have long had the option to tell their story their way, on their own terms and turf.
On social media, the 23-year-old Osaka can use disintermediation to her advantage. Like any other individual with a large enough following, she can use social platforms to exercise more control over what she says and when, or even how she might monetize her content, if she wants to do so. She is the sport’s second-ranked female player who, less than four months ago, won her fourth Grand Slam title in just three years. She has plenty of years left in the sport. Or she can walk away from it anytime she chooses. Why should she be compelled to face media scrutiny if she feels that doing that compromises her self-confidence and mental health?
Osaka is not the first tennis star to have shunned the post-match press conference. Marat Safin did it in 2001 at the French Open, for which he paid a $10,000 fine. The magnificent Venus Williams did the same, also at Roland Garros, in 2015 and paid $3,000 for her choice.
After Johanna Konta lost the quarterfinal to Barbora Strycova in Wimbledon in July 2019, some journalists repeatedly asked her to relive some of the errors she made at crucial points in the match and what she had learned from her mistakes. She called one of them out for being disrespectful. “In the way you’re asking your question, you’re being quite disrespectful and you’re patronizing me,” Konta said. “I’m a professional competitor who did her best today and that’s all there is to that.”
Can sports journalists write intelligently about matches without gaining access to the athletes involved in the post-match press conference? Of course. The only opportunity they really lose is that of putting athletes through the wringer and asking them intrusive questions, particularly after a loss. Some athletes may have the ability to address those questions and still find some humor; the American former world No. 1 Andy Roddick comes to mind. But each person responds differently to the same stressor. What can be cathartic for some may be just plain cruelty to others.
There is a different contract involved with public officials. Unlike sports stars and celebrities, they do have an obligation to be transparent to the citizens who gave them the mandate to serve. Accountability is the price they pay for the authority and access to taxpayers’ resources that their position gives them.
Yet even among public officials, there is a growing preference for using social media to tell their version of the story on their own terms. Some are very polished at it, treating their social media platforms more like show biz celebrities and influencers than the officials we have entrusted public policy and governance decisions with. And there’s definitely more than a one-time fine at stake.