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Hok Talk - Media availability and mental health

How much access do athletes owe media and fans?

Naomi Osaka throws out the first pitch before a Dodgers game
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you stick solely to the major American sports you might not have heard about the big news broiling over in tennis circles from a couple of days ago. Naomi Osaka, number-two ranked women’s tennis player in the world announced she would not be doing any press conferences during the upcoming French Open. Her reasons included both that it was bad for her mental health and that the questions were largely repetitive and can cause an athlete to doubt themself.

There’s been a lot of handwringing among both members of the media and other tennis stars in response to this news. A lot of it seems driven by misinformation and/or misunderstandings. By now you’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with baseball and I promise I’ll get to that but first I want to go over a lot of the nonsense I’m seeing in regard to Osaka’s decision.

Professional athletes must be made available to explain their decisions to the press/audience!

First of all, at no point did Osaka say she would never speak to the press again. She specifically said she would not be participating in press conferences during a single tournament. At the same time, she also indicated that she doesn’t really object to one-on-one interviews and has enjoyed some of those in the past. That would seem to indicate even if she refuses to ever do another press conference she’d still make herself available for that kind of interview.

But, honestly, why must athletes be required to speak to the press? Can you imagine talking to national media outlets after every day of work? The good, the bad, and the indifferent? At the end of my workday, I am tired. I would definitely not want to attempt to prepare to break down every tiny decision I made and the consequences thereof.

REPORTER: Excuse me, Hokius! How does it feel to know you took two hours to identify the missing semi-colon that was stalling all progress today?

HOKIUS: Well, ya know, not great. Obviously. But I did find it and that’s a win.

REPORTER: Why did it take you so long to find the issue?

HOKIUS: Well, you know, there were just some communication issues between me and the software. But we’ll work on that, you know. Hopefully, I’ll recognize that faster next time

It is insulting for Naomi Osaka to cite mental health issues as her reason for not doing this. There’s nothing wrong with her!

So I’ve seen this in multiple places and honestly it blows my mind. It made me realize that there are people out there who think that the only people who have to worry about their mental health are the people with mental illnesses. That’s crazy. Are the only people out there who have to worry about their physical health the people who are sick or injured? Of course not. If Osaka needs to skip press conferences because they damage her mental well-being then that’s not that different from those of you who go jogging every other day to keep yourselves healthy.

[Insert athlete’s name here] doesn’t have a problem doing press conferences. Why should she?

This is just asinine. Athletes are the living embodiment of how some people are just built differently from others. No matter how hard Chris Owings tries he’s never going to be as good at baseball as Mike Trout. And even Owings is still better than 99% of the rest of the world. If some people are naturally better at baseball than others then why can’t we easily understand that some people can naturally deal with something like a press conference more easily than others? Also, for the record, we don’t - and don’t need to - know what mental illnesses Osaka might be dealing with.

Naomi makes a good point

Press conferences are dumb. For a million reasons they’re so dumb. Anyone who has spent any time watching sports press conferences knows this. When Osaka pointed out that one of the biggest problems with press conferences is the repetitive nature of the questions no one contradicted her because it’s true. Even worse is that athletes almost always give vague or nonsense answers in response to the questions they’re asked. The head coach of the team across the parking lot, Andy Reid, is infamous for how little he can say with many words during a press conference. The only person more known for it might be Bill Belichick. Rex Hudler admitted during a recent baseball broadcast that players often speak in cliches so as to avoid giving other teams bulletin board material.

Press conferences are almost always delivered immediately before a competition - when no one knows anything- or after a competition. We shove a bunch of bright lights, large cameras, and microphones into someone’s face and demand answers immediately following what is sometimes the greatest personal failure or success of their lives. We give them no time to recover emotionally or physically. We give them no time to reflect on or analyze the events or choices that were made and why. We simply demand they provide highly detailed responses about something that they have a ton of technical knowledge about to laypeople in a way that doesn’t reveal too much or too little and won’t offend anyone. Of course, we don’t get anything useful out of them. That’s insane!

Refer to the mock interview I gave earlier. By the time I’ve massaged my answers enough to avoid giving away any secrets, to avoid throwing anyone under the bus, and to still speak honestly they’re so vague and full of cliche that the answers tell you nothing. You can’t even tell what my job is from the quotes I gave. If the answers are meaningless then the entire exercise is meaningless.

Bringing it back to baseball

I wanted to write about this not just because I was inspired by Naomi Osaka’s comments but because I was inspired by Will Craig’s actions. Will Craig, if you were unaware, is a first baseman who plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Thursday afternoon he was involved in this play:

So far as I am aware, Will Craig has made no comment regarding his actions on the field that day. Of course, checking Twitter, everyone already knows what happened. Dude had a brain fart. It happens. What could he possibly say that would add to our understanding of events?

However, under other circumstances, reporters would have surrounded his locker and demanded that explanation all the same. In a few days or a week, Craig might have enough perspective to explain what caused the brain fart. In a couple of years, he might be emotionally divorced enough from the event to tell some funny or witty jokes about it. I can almost guarantee that with his emotions still high immediately following a loss to which he helped contribute in an extremely embarrassing fashion that he did not have any useful perspective Thursday night.

Another example that comes strongly to mind from recent history is the press conference Mike Matheny gave after a recent Royals loss. During the course of the conference, he revealed that Josh Staumont hadn’t been available for that game and that it had altered his approach to handling the bullpen. But it wasn’t until a follow-up one-on-one interview that we learned from Athletic writer Alec Lewis why Staumont hadn’t been considered available. We almost always get much more interesting and useful information from those kinds of interviews than we do from press conferences.

And, to be honest, it is by design that sports press conferences don’t offer useful information. Maybe when they first started to be held players and coaches would say interesting things, but these days it’s extremely surprising when they do say something beyond what was already obvious, vague, or cliche. Press conferences do place pressure on athletes and coaches that takes away from their primary job: winning. That being the case, I think Naomi Osaka is on to something, here.

Interviewing athletes helps can help fans understand the game and also feel more a part of events. These are good things for the sports and athletes that play them. But too often we forget that these athletes are human beings, too. They deserve respect and compassion better than a press conference immediately after a game provides to them. Keep the one-on-one and small-group interviews but let’s do away with press conferences and good riddance. They’re just not doing anyone any good.