When Naomi Osaka first announced she wouldn’t do any media appearances at the French Open tennis major in Paris — citing their impact on her mental health — it started a debate.
Athletes are obviously keen to focus on performing, but the industry in which they compete is quite often funded and sustained by the media coverage that leads to sponsorship deals, ticket sales and lucrative broadcast rights. Without it, there’s every chance all sport would just be a hobby and not a profession, with a “real job” needed alongside it.
The media is also an outlet for the athletes, an opportunity to give their side of the story and portray themselves the way they want, so it has an important place in sport. But it’s quite clear it can also be a difficult industry to deal with at times.
After Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory post-match press conference and subsequently pulled out of the French Open altogether in order to focus on her wellbeing, she received a huge amount of support from fellow athletes around the world. And it raises a question that goes far beyond tennis and further than even sport itself when it comes to not knowing what is going through anyone’s head.
“Firstly, everyone’s different and everyone can respond to highs and lows very differently,” Daniel Ricciardo said when I asked him about the difficulty of being asked to talk openly about his good and bad days. “Even in Naomi’s position, she’s one of the best in the world — if not currently the best — and let’s say riding such a high, but that could have some negative impacts on her and her wellbeing. Then others just suffer more with being in lower spots, and trying to achieve something and not getting there.
“I think it is very different for each individual, but this highlights that even when you may think someone is at the top, you still have to be very respectful of their space and where they’re at. They’re seen as — in her situation — a tennis player, but she’s also a human and I’m sure she has so many other things going on in her life.
“It’s very easy just to see someone as their profession, but not from a wider aspect of what they really are in their day-to-day life. People always have other things going on. I haven’t read a whole lot about it, but certainly I think a decision like that just needs to be accepted and people need to accept that with an open mind. Maybe it’s not all it seems, and if someone needs space, give it to them.
“I think in general the media have to be careful sometimes. I don’t think this is the situation now, but how they write things… people can be quite sensitive and feelings are real. Nobody (is) bulletproof, so just take some things into account when going after someone.”
Pierre Gasly lost one of his best friends in the sport he calls a job less than two years ago, and has always been remarkably strong, honest and open discussing F2 racer Anthoine Hubert’s death in the time since. But he agrees with Ricciardo, and warns that athletes sometimes differentiate themselves between their professional and personal lives, and it can be tough when the two are blurred.
“It’s a difficult topic, and it’s also very specific to each individual, and each person will live things will feel things in our own way,” Gasly said. “Obviously, as an athlete, you’re seen as an athlete, but you are also a person and I feel you can be two different characters. And it’s important not to mix this, but we all have highs and lows; we all have different responses to these situations, to these emotions, and I think it’s important people respect that.
“In Naomi’s case it was an obviously very … no one really expected that. But I guess it’s important for all of us — as fans, mediators, journalists — to respect and understand it’s important we are athletes, but we are also people: We also feel, we are all emotional, and we all need our space, in all situations in our personal life, but also as an athlete, and I think it’s important to respect these decisions.”
There’s a reason I’ve led with those two drivers, and it’s not just because I was the one who asked them the question of how difficult it can be to discuss hard times in the media. But because Lewis Hamilton was also asked — as he so often is — and gave his usual insightful response.
The irony is not lost on me that it perhaps wasn’t an easy subject to talk about in a press conference, but Hamilton has so much experience now that he is an impressive spokesperson, and that means he’s often the only one asked, or at least featured. But that doesn’t mean he always has the answers, and he feels he can’t advise Osaka on how best to deal with the limelight other than to reassure her — and anyone else — that he makes mistakes and learns from them.
“I don’t think I’m the right person to say whether it’s the right thing to do, to seek help, necessarily,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never believed in sports psychology but I think it’s definitely an interesting topic. I wouldn’t say I have advice for her. She’s an incredible athlete and human being and her activism has been just so impactful.
“At such a young age there’s so much weight on her shoulders, it’s inevitable… the fact is, when you’re young you’re thrown into the limelight and into the spotlight and it weighs heavily on you. The thing is, most of us are not prepared.
“I remember when I got to Formula 1 and the team (McLaren) had PR. I was never prepared for being thrown in front of a camera — I was never guided as to what to look out for, and helped to navigate through that. You kind of learn through mistakes. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking, especially when you have all good intentions but people take advantage of it.
“I think she’s incredibly brave and I applaud her for her bravery because it’s now asking those in power… putting them in question and making them have to think about how they react. I think the way they reacted was not good, with the fine. Someone talking about their personal mental health, and then being fined for it… that wasn’t cool. They could have definitely handled it better.
“I hope they take a deep dive into it and find a better way to navigate in the future. As athletes we are pushing ourselves to the limit, we are on the edge. And we are only human beings.”
Osaka is just 23 years old, but that’s still older than a quarter of the F1 grid, and the same age as another three drivers (including sharing her exact birthday with Charles Leclerc). For Hamilton, expecting such young people to be able to handle such intense environments and spotlight without more support is unfair.
“I’ve learned the hard way and made many a mistake and I still do today. It can be daunting, still, standing behind a camera. It’s not the easiest. Particularly if you’re an introvert and you do struggle to be under those sorts of pressures. Some people are less comfortable with it than others. I’ve learned over my time here, and I’m trying to continue to learn how I engage. But as I said, when I was young I was thrown into the pit and I wasn’t given any guidance or support.
“What I do know is when youngsters are coming in, they’re facing the same thing as I did. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s the best for them. I think we need to be supporting more. It shouldn’t be a case where you’re pressured.
“For example with Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable for her own personal health not to do something and the backlash is ridiculous. People are not taking into account that she’s a human being and she’s saying that (she’s) not well enough to do this right now. I think that needs to be really looked into and how people react to that and rather be supportive and uplifting to her.”
And perhaps, when we have this debate, we need to appreciate the importance of both sides of it. Coverage of a sport is crucial, and mental strength is something that many at the top of their profession have in spades, so it’s easy to point to the perks of the job, have no sympathy for those struggling and dismiss something like Osaka’s case as a competitive weakness.
But covering mental health issues ought to lead us to view someone as a human first and an athlete second, rather than the other way around.