Organizers, media missed mark in reacting to Naomi Osaka’s French Open withdrawal

A single tweet from Naomi Osaka sent the tennis and sports worlds into a tailspin.

When Osaka announced she would skip media at the French Open, and later withdraw from the tournament altogether, reaction included reassessment of the role of the press and a threatening letter from the four tennis majors.

But both missed the mark, according to the Bring It In panellists.

In the latest episode of the CBC Sports video series, hosts Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss why Osaka’s mental health should have been the forefront of the conversation in the aftermath of her decision. The panel also talks about the unruly behaviour of NBA fans in their return to the stands as well as the Mayweather-Paul bout and some recent track-and-field records.

WATCH | Osaka’s mental health the main story in her withdrawal from the French Open:

Hosts of Bring It In Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open and the social media frenzy that ensued after. 14:50

Campbell said reaction to Osaka may have been different if she was battling a physical ailment as opposed to a mental one.

“If Naomi Osaka says, ‘Look, my mental health is less than optimal right now,’ then we as fans, as media, as organizers, have to accept that the same way we would if she said her Achilles tendon is hanging by a thread. Yet that’s not how she was treated.”

Osaka announced she would skip media because it made her anxious just prior to the tournament, and followed up on her promise following her first-round win, accepting a $15,000 US fine in the process as she expected.

What the 23-year-old, who was born in Japan before moving to the U.S. at age 3, did not expect was the additional backlash received. On top of her decision becoming a major news story, the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon came together with the French Open to threaten possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued not doing press.

Zirin says the harsh response is part of sports organizations trying to take the power back from athletes.

“They are letting the world know that we are getting back to business: ‘We’re going to stop alienating largely white fans and we’re gonna start putting out a product that’s going to appeal to everybody. And the way we’re gonna make this clear to the public is through discipline and the reestablishment of hierarchy,'” Zirin said.

“And I think what they were doing to Naomi Osaka was sending a message.”

In 2020, as many sports were cancelled and postponed due to the pandemic, Zirin says athletes were allowed to use their platforms to discuss police violence, elections and other issues freely. However, now that normalcy is creeping closer, institutions are no longer willing to risk revenue on athletes who may turn some potential viewers away with their opinions.

“This isn’t about mental health, this isn’t about media. This is about the reestablishment of hierarchy. I think you can connect what happened with Naomi Osaka with the fan behaviour in NBA games,” he said.

WATCH | Bring It In on unruly NBA fan behaviour:

Hosts of Bring It In Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss the punishments set in place for inappropriate fan behaviour at North American sporting events. 11:37

McPeak recalled how Serena Williams and other Black players have often been treated unfairly by judges in tennis.

“It makes me truly wonder, had Naomi, quite frankly, been white, would they have treated her the same way? Would they have doubled down after her first match following missing the media as she quite blatantly told them she was going to do?,” McPeak said.

Per the rulebook, Osaka should have been fined and that would have been that. Instead, organizers sought harsher punishment for the No. 2 player in the world.

All while arguably the highest-profile player in women’s tennis was just trying to say she was hurt.

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