If you’re surprised that there’s a part two to what I had to write on this topic last week, join the club! I, too, thought I had written everything I had to write on the topic. But events this week showed that we have only scratched the surface on this incredibly important topic.
Naomi Osaka can do nothing right
Before I dive into what happened with the tennis star since last we gathered here I want to be sure we’re all operating with the same context. Last week I noted that Naomi Osaka was the number-two ranked women’s tennis player in the world. I failed to note that she has been ranked number one before. And these rankings aren’t equivalent to the power rankings of football or baseball teams from your favorite sports periodical. They reflect the actual results on the court; if you want to be ranked number one you have to win more matches and more tournaments than anyone else. That was Osaka. Even now, she’s still ranked number two. A quick perusal of her Wikipedia page reveals more rare and unique feats that she has accomplished. She is, by all measures, a superstar. She is Mike Trout. She is Ronald Acuña Jr.
She is a big deal.
This is important context because after winning her first match of the French Open, one of the four biggest tennis tournaments in the world she declined to appear for her contractually-obligated a press conference - just like she had announced she was going to do. She was prepared to pay the associated fine but she received a letter informing her that if she didn’t start doing the press conferences she might receive a ban from the major tournaments in the future. So, with her options diminishing, she chose to forfeit her next match and end her participation.
It’s hard for me to say how likely they were to actually follow through on the threat (they have since claimed to regret not having opened a dialog with her which suggests, but does not prove, that they were bluffing and assumed she’d give in and do as she was told.) Regardless, just the fact that they made it in the first place is startling. Can you imagine MLB threatening to ban Clayton Kershaw from the World Series because he refused to give a press conference? Of course not. They might find other ways to pressure him, but they know damn well that trying to have the World Series without him (assuming the Dodgers were scheduled to play) is worse for their brand than him not doing press conferences. In fact, player press conferences and post-game interviews were deemed so pointless in baseball and American football that when the pandemic hit the leagues chose to largely eliminate them rather than attempt any other measure to ensure they could still occur.
Of course, many people are unhappy with Osaka’s latest decision, too. After being criticized for being “mentally weak” and “unprofessional” for taking the stand she did people are now criticizing her for not just rolling over and doing what she was told. It seems to have escaped their notice that her choice proves that she’s incredibly mentally tough. I’m sure a large part of her identity is wrapped up in her ability to compete on a tennis court. And when presented with a choice to continue competing as she has done for most of her life or avoid unnecessary damage to her well-being she chose the latter.
So I say, “Good for Osaka!” If she had caved and started going to the press conferences again she would not only have allowed herself to be harmed in the name of playing a sport but she would have weakened her position and the position of all others who might want to stand for mental health rights in the future. If there is any hope of Tennis changing gears and working to improve conditions for their players - aka the people who make all of those faceless, nameless authorities all of their money - she had to be willing to take a drastic step in response to their drastic step. With her tough choice and sacrifice, she has made it much more likely that she and other tennis stars will be able to better care for their mental health in the future. The only problem is that she had to sacrifice to make people see what they should have done in the first place.
Why on earth would any athlete ever do a press conference?
Everyone admits that press conferences are useless because athletes give uninteresting responses to generic and repetitive questions. Everyone admits that any athlete who gave an interesting answer at a press conference would be acting inappropriately or unprofessionally. Given both of those things, why does anyone support the continued existence of press conferences with athletes? They add no benefit to anyone’s lives, so why are fans, media members, and even some athletes so strongly for them that they would attack Naomi Osaka for daring to say what we all know is true, admit that they’re also awful for her health, and opt out? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
And then I hear things like Tuesday’s episode of The Program starring Soren Petro.
If you didn’t listen to it, Petro spent basically the entire show complaining about Adalberto Mondesi and his health. He repeatedly questioned Mondesi’s physical and mental toughness. It all culminated late in the show with Soren insisting that Mondesi is a “clubhouse cancer” because he gets hurt too often. Soren then insisted the Royals should immediately cut or trade Mondesi for whatever they can get for him because he’s just that bad for the clubhouse.
This is, on its face, stupid. As The Athletic writer and guest of The Program, Alec Lewis pointed out, if you cut or trade Mondesi how does that improve the team as it is currently constructed? There is no one in free agency or in the Royals system who can come close to doing what Mondesi can do on the field.
But more than that, those are some pretty awful things to say about another human being. I guarantee that no one wants Adalberto Mondesi to be on the baseball field and producing more than Adalberto Mondesi. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that someone so talented isn’t actively contributing to the team, but we all know it sucks to be hurt. We all know it sucks to feel like we’re letting our friends down. Every day Mondesi isn’t on the field is also a day in which Mondesi doesn’t have an opportunity to earn more money. He has every incentive to find a way to play. He’s not doing this in order to irk his teammates, the fans, or anyone else.
So, for those of you who think a press conference shouldn’t be a big deal remember that if Adalberto Mondesi was required to give a press conference right now Soren Petro would be among the reporters asking him questions. How would it make you feel to know that a man who thinks your personal and professional setbacks make you a “cancer” to everyone around you is now being permitted to ask any question he wants of you and you have to answer him or face being accused of being unprofessional all over again? Add to that, after you’re done answering him - no matter what you say - that person is likely going to take those sound bites and twist them around to suit the narrative he has already developed and continue insulting you. I’m pretty sure you’d feel pretty awful about that. This is what we in the biz call, “Not good for your mental health.” And that’s before we add in any underlying conditions like anxiety or depression that amplify all the damage that could occur in that sort of situation. If your depression is telling you that you’re worthless and a failure - something I can tell you first-hand that depression loves to tell you - and then some guy that you barely know decides he can see what is in your heart and personal life and confirms for you that yes, you definitely are a terrible athlete and human being it’s even harder to shrug it off. Kind of like how applying pressure to a frayed rope is even more likely to cause it to break than if the rope were whole.
Athletes are paid to play sports as best they can as often as they can
Those of you who are football fans may recall a story from the past couple of years about Patrick Mahomes. As it goes, Mahomes played some pickup basketball at an area gym. He was recorded doing so. Demands immediately came out from fans and local sports media that he be told not to do that anymore. Mahomes’ superiors agreed with that assessment and told him he wasn’t allowed to play pickup basketball anymore.
Every athlete that competes does so with the knowledge that they could be injured and sidelined at any given moment. However, many of them are asked or outright commanded to do everything to limit the possibility of injury when they aren’t directly competing. It’s not at all unusual for major sports contracts in the US to come with clauses that forbid athletes from participating in other athletic or dangerous activities that might cause them to miss time from their profession. One football player had his contract voided recently because he injured himself working out at home instead of at a team facility. They’re deadly serious about this.
During the 2019 NFL playoffs, Mahomes’ teammate Chris Jones came under fire for suffering an injury that some fans assumed had come from participating in a non-football activity. So not only do teams not like it when players hurt themselves doing something other than the sport they play professionally, but fans really hate it, too. So I have to ask, why is it that some would demand a person endure a mental injury performing a meaningless task only tangentially related to the sport that they play that everyone has already admitted is utterly devoid of point or benefit?
The answer, of course, is that people don’t view mental illnesses or mental injuries as being “real.” Which is bonkers. Not only do almost all of us know someone who is taking medication for a chronic mental illness but we all have direct experience with good mental health days and bad mental health days even if some of us wouldn’t use those exact words. Even crazier is that fans are vividly aware of how the mental aspect of sports can affect the results.
As sports fans, we’ve all heard players talk about “being in the zone” which is very clearly a mental state as they’re physically in the same place they’ve always been. As baseball fans, we’re all familiar with hitters talking about the baseball seeming to be as big as a beach ball when things are going well. Since we all know better than to think they’re suffering from some kind of vision impairment that makes them better hitters we know that that’s a reflection of their mental state. Other common sports cliches include people who are “trying too hard” and “can’t get out of their own head.” People have talked about how Danny Duffy and Brady Singer let their emotions get the best of them.
Mental health is real. It has a real, measurable impact on our lives and our ability to perform work and accomplish other goals. The sooner we all realize that the better off we will all be. And I don’t just mean Osaka, myself, and others who suffer from chronic mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. I mean everyone. Even if you aren’t suffering from a chronic mental ailment - undiagnosed or otherwise - knowing how to describe good days and bad days to yourself and how to take care of yourself in the bad days can be hugely beneficial.
I’m so impressed by people like Naomi Osaka who stand their ground in the face of such lurid criticism. I’m so impressed by people like Adalberto Mondesi, Alex Smith, and Kyle Zimmer who just keep working hard in the face of repeated adversity. I’m angry at what they have had to endure at the hands of people with no empathy but I can’t wait to see what these incredibly strong and resilient people do next.