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Does Tennis Care About Players? Naomi Osaka Quits French Open After Mental Health Plea Ignored

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Athletes around the globe are voicing support for tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open after being fined and threatened with disqualification for declining to take part in press conferences due to their effect on her mental health. Prominent athletes, from Stephen Curry to Serena Williams, have come forward to support 23-year-old Osaka, who is a four-time Grand Slam tournament winner. The escalating fines and criticism Osaka faced from tennis officials were “a disproportionate response” to her actions, says Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State and co-host of the sports podcast “Burn It All Down.” She adds that Black women athletes are often subjected to insensitive questioning from the media that can perpetuate racist and sexist narratives. “The media is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly older, overwhelmingly male,” Davis says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Athletes around the globe are voicing support for tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open Monday after being fined and threatened with disqualification for declining to take part in news conferences due to their effect, she said, on her mental health. In a statement posted on Twitter, the 23-year-old Osaka wrote, quote, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.” Naomi Osaka went on to write, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get rally nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage,” she said.

Prominent athletes have come forward to support Naomi, from Steph Curry to Venus and Serena Williams. Tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter, “It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well,” she said. Sports researchers estimate one-third of athletes suffer from a mental health crisis at some point in their careers.

Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and a Haitian American father, is a four-time winner of Grand Slam tennis tournaments. She drew headlines last year when she wore the names of Black victims of police brutality on her face masks on the sidelines of the U.S. Open.

We’re joined by Amira Rose Davis. She’s assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University. She’s currently working on a book entitled Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. She’s co-host of the sports podcast Burn It All Down.

Amira Rose Davis, welcome back to Democracy Now!

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you take — it’s great to have you with us. Can you take us through just the chronology of Naomi Osaka saying she didn’t want to participate in these news conferences, that she was suffering from depression, was very nervous about them, and then the response of the opens — it’s the French Open, Australia, etc., all together — at the French Open, saying they might expel her, and they were fining her?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely. Last week, before the tournament started, Naomi took to social media to issue a statement saying, “Heads up, I won’t be doing the post-game pressers. I don’t want to engage in that way. For mental health concerns, I think it’s best if I don’t do this. I recognize that this comes with a fine. I am prepared to pay this fine. I hope that the Slams use this fine for mental health organizations or for mental health initiatives.” And that was really her statement. She was trying to get ahead of it.

The reaction to that on social media was a range of things. But then the Slams, as you pointed to — the French, the Australian, the U.S. and Wimbledon — all came together to issue a joint statement, that the first few lines said, “We hope you’re well. We care about mental health concerns. We want to support you,” and then very quickly said, “But we also want to remind you of the code of conduct, and not only this first $15,000 fine that you got, but we will escalate that fine.” And then they also threatened — they also said that it could elevate to the level of being defaulted from the tournament.

And I think that this reaction really was like throwing, you know, a spark on the fire — you know I love fire references because of the podcast. But it really was, because for all of the Slams to come together to do this statement, when they’re often quiet on other things — like right now there’s literally somebody who is on trial for domestic abuse, right? — we don’t get the same — like, this was a disproportionate response.

And that compelled — it shifted the conversation to mental health concerns in a particular way, that only was solidified when Naomi put out a second statement at the beginning of this week that said, “I didn’t want to be a distraction. This has now blown up. And I think the best thing for me to do is withdraw completely from this tournament.” She didn’t end there, however. She went on to say she followed up privately with the Slams to talk about this more. But beyond that, she wanted to have further conversations to ensure that there was more awareness and more support for mental health concerns around athletes. And that was her statement on Monday. And then, since then, we’ve had a variety of conversations around the subject.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, I wanted to ask you about the response. There’s been sort of a disconnect from the response of other tennis players versus other athletes. Could you talk about how fellow athletes have responded, both within the tennis world and outside?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, I think many athletes have come out and applauded her, have wished her well, have talked about their own mental health struggles. Tennis players on the circuit have now been getting these questions. You saw how Venus Williams chose to answer it yesterday by saying, “You know, listen. We’re all dealing with it in certain ways. The way I deal with it is that I know that the press can’t play as well as I can. Nobody’s going to hold a candle to me. And that’s how I deal with it. But we all have our ways of coping.” Serena said, “I just want to give her a hug.” So, I think that within tennis you have seen support, and outside of tennis you’ve seen support.

I actually feel like the disconnect is happening because there’s like three strands of conversation happening. I think that, one, athletes are having a conversation about mental health. Specifically Black athletes are having a conversation about, you know, what their role is as professional athletes. And then journalists are having a conversation about the — you know, do these pressers matter? What does it look like to be in a changing landscape of their field? And that has been a central kind of conversation, as well. And then lay fans have either said she needs to go play, or she needs to buckle up, and this is entitlement. And there’s a lot of people who also have recognized a strength in this and appreciate moving the needle on mental health. So I think we’re seeing multiple conversations happening, overlapping, of course, on social media. But the support from athletes has really been to talk about their own struggles or say, “Oh, it hits close to home,” or offer support.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to what degree do you think that these — because this is something now that’s pretty prevalent in all sports, these televised press conferences right after games or matches. It’s almost as if it’s more of an entertainment value than a real news value. And it’s more of an attempt to promote a particular sport economically rather than actually journalists ferreting out critical information. To what degree are the journalists playing into this situation of looking always for conflict or for a dramatic narrative that they can push a story, and, of course, then having to even hone in more on these athletes with tough questions?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is a really key question. Historically, these pressers have absolutely been to grow the league, to get interest, to have partnerships with sponsors. And that’s the function they’ve served, particularly growing leagues. Women’s leagues have used this access in really important ways in terms of growth.

One of the conversations that has been happening is, is that — has it outlived its function? Because many people feel like it’s redundant questions, it’s poking, it’s prodding. I talked to my co-host Jessica Luther and many journalists who were wrestling with this in other ways, because I think that they see a possibility in these pressers, where there’s access, where there’s not prescribed questions, where there is a chance to actually perhaps hold people accountable or ask questions that might have been otherwise pushed aside by handlers. And I think that that is really valid, but also an idealized way of how these pressers actually function.

To your point, the media is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly older, overwhelmingly male. There’s a fight for marginalized sports reporters to even get in those rooms. And I think that the dynamic within those spaces doesn’t live up to this kind of ideal of accountability and access, and oftentimes becomes about quickly churning out and perpetuating narratives, asking the same question. And then it sticks, and it’s there.

One of the things Naomi said was, “I’ve been battling depression since the U.S. Open in 2018” — right? — which was when she faced Serena and launched onto the scene, won her — won that Slam. But, of course, there was a narrative about Serena’s actions during the match. She was crying. Fans were booing her. And every time they play, every time she’s back at the U.S. Open, this gets regurgitated. There’s questions about it. And I think it’s very telling that she pointed that out, because it points to this point about how these narratives — right? — continue and continue and continue, with very little stopping to consider what harm or what cost to the athlete.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet it was Serena who was among the superstars who came out in support of Naomi Osaka. This is what she said.

SERENA WILLIAMS: The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug, because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions. We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. You know, other people are thin. So, everyone is different, and everyone handles things differently. So, you know, you just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way that she thinks she can. And that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best that she can.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Serena Williams. And, of course, the Williams sisters really helping, among a few other African Americans in tennis, to break the color barrier in what was a really white sport. And the significance, Professor, of Naomi Osaka, a descendant of — well, her mother is Japanese, her father, Haitian American. She is a Black woman who is breaking so many barriers. I think she’s the highest-paid woman athlete in the world right now. What this means, the kind of pressure being brought on her? And if young African American women see even her, she gets fined — she even said, on those fines that the French Open applied to her, she asked that they be given to mental health organizations, the money they made off of her.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there’s two really important things here that you just brought up. One, absolutely, Naomi has been in the tennis space that we know has had a great deal of scrutiny for Venus and Serena Williams, for Sloane, for Coco Gauff, for Naomi herself, in a myriad of ways. And I think that entering into that space, you already saw moments where Naomi tried to disrupt kind of conventional narratives or push back at even framing of questions. When people said, “Oh, you’re Japanese,” she would always remind them that she was Haitian. She insisted on her Blackness being recognized. When she wore masks, and Tom Rinaldi asked her in the post-game, “Well, what does it mean? You know, what do these masks mean to you?” — and she had explained this and talked about this before — and she said, “Well, what does it mean to you?” She flipped it, you know, back on the reporter. And I think that these were the ways that she had already slightly disrupted, or when she stopped playing last August with a number of other athletes and said, “There’s more important things to do than for you to watch me play tennis.” So we’ve already seen her take on this role and kind of push the status quo in these ways.

But I think it really is important to map this onto two other conversations. One is Black athletes who are continuing to insist on their humanity being recognized, who continue to say, “We’re not just here to entertain you,” and to push back on what is seen as entitlement or what people are owed of their labor. And athletes are saying, “My labor is — my athleticism is on the court. But you’re already privy to my weight, to my height, to my injury history, to my body, and then also to my mind with these probing questions.” And whether it’s protesting or speaking out about fan abuse, which is what we’re seeing increasingly, as well, or this conversation that Naomi is having, the underlying point that they’re pushing back on through these moments is to say, “We are fully human, and this is our job, and we don’t have to actually just go along with racial abuse, or we don’t have to sacrifice our mental health.” And I think that’s a really important through line that we see happening here. And so, you can look at people like Marshawn Lynch, Kyrie Irving, Natasha Cloud, who refused to do WNBA pressers unless they were about gun violence and police brutality, as a kind of longer history of that.

But that second part about Black women is also really important, too. There’s ongoing conversations about Black women’s mental health. We saw this topic also come up when Meghan Markle disclosed her depression, her anxiety. And I think that this is a really important growing conversation. Some people — some social scientists have called it a mental health crisis, that the trope of a strong Black woman who’s tasked with doing labor, who’s simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, means that there’s really high rates of depression, of anxiety, and too often not enough mechanisms for help — a very low number of Black women therapy providers, for instance. And so, I think that part, that point — right? — of what this conversation does, how it moves the needle and how these Black women celebrities and athletes can play a really important role in pushing that conversation, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Amira Rose Davis, for joining us, assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University, co-host of the sports podcast Burn It All Down. And, boy, what Naomi said in her silence last year at the U.S. Open, donning seven masks, each bearing the name of a Black person who was killed: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice — almost all killed by police.

When we come back, we look at the link between mass shootings and domestic violence. Back in 30 seconds.

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