Editor: The world of sports, particularly the world of tennis, is buzzing with the news of Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open.
As part of her contract, she was to appear in the media interviews, which are considered to be a part of marketing and promotion of games. Osaka could not meet with this part of her contract. She was fined first. Then she was threatened with future disciplinary actions. Considering the challenges of her mental health, eventually she decided that it was in her best interest to withdraw from these games.
She had already disclosed about her depression and anxiety previously.
Depression/anxiety is a form of mental illness and it can be debilitating. Such challenges are exacerbated when confronted with insensitive, cynical, sensationalizing and predatory type interviews.
For Osaka, her mental health was more important than her career. Despite of her depression and anxiety, she has continued to give outstanding performance in an admirable manner, demonstrating to be an exceptional athlete.
I understand the issue of contractual obligations. If breeched, one must face the consequences. But this particular case is not that simple. Why was Osaka put in a position of choosing her mental health over her career? Why couldn’t the tennis authorities try to find a creative solution to her problem?
With one in five struggling with mental health issues, one can imagine how many athletes may be struggling with their mental health issues today. And this estimate doesn’t include family and friends who directly or indirectly are affected.
Depression and anxiety are an illness, like any illness. They can be treated through medical and psychosocial interventions. There is nothing wrong with athletes if they can’t meet with their contractual obligations due to an illness. After all, depression is not a sign of character deficit. Depression is not a sign of weakness. Depression is not a sign of laziness. It is a treatable illness and it requires creative problem solving in a win-win manner.
Osaka’s apparent career sacrifice from tennis could have been avoided if the tennis authorities had found an imaginative and a creative way to solve the problem. The magic strategy is accommodation. Only if the tennis bosses could have accommodated Osaka’s disability, there would have been win-win outcome.
Accommodation does not mean accommodating substandard, compromised or poor performance but it means finding creative ways to augment a disability/illness while still expecting and maintaining exceptional performance. It is a win-win solution.
Osaka could have been provided with an assistance of a supportive friend to accompany her during media interviews, with written questions from the media in advance or interviews in a safe environment.
Every sports event affords medical and paramedical personnel with their professional assistance. Why do they not include professionals with expertise in providing emotional supports? Is it a sign of double standard, a sign of ignorance or outdated and archaic policies?
That Osaka had to depart from the tennis world due to a lack of creative problem solving is lose-lose outcome. A bright star departing from a carrier on the rise is a loss for her and a painful experience for her family and friends.
On the other hand, Osaka’s departure from the world of tennis is a loss to the world of tennis and many budding female athletes who look up to her. She has been a source of inspiration for them. Osaka was not just an exceptional player, she was also a role model for the girls of color and mixed races. No one won.
To fine Osaka and to threaten her with future disciplinary action reflects not on Osaka but on ignorance of the powerful people of tennis world concerning the challenges of mental illness. It’s about time they learn some facts about mental illness and update themselves.
By accommodating Osaka, tennis bosses would have come out seen as progressive, creative problem solver, forward thinking and champion of mental health. What a missed opportunity.
Osaka is now a billionaire! And she does not need tennis to live! And she does.need the media to survive! She should retire in peace and cure her mental illness ny the institution and doctors.