A version of this column appeared on Medium, June 19, 2021.
I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and that rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. …However, if the organizations think that they can just keep saying, “do press or you’re gonna be fined”, and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the center piece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.” @naomiosaka (5/26/2021)
White athletes are always forgiven when they break down in public, disagree with judges, or act anyway but “normative.”
But Naomi Osaka is fined $15k for taking care of her mental health.
Serena Williams was fined for arguing with a referee — yet, white tennis players publicly admitted they had done far worse and suffered no penalties, punishments, or consequences.
Williams was also required to remove compression leggings she wore after giving birth to prevent blood clots!
Who does that?
The answer — professional sports organizations that view athletes as little more than chattel to enrich their coffers. And in the corral of athletic livestock, BIPOC athletes suffer the most.
Osaka’s punishment is yet another display of racial micro-aggression, racial bullying, implicit bias, anti-Blackness, anti-Asian, and gender discrimination.
This talented athlete embodies it all — she is a young Afro-Asian woman who has taken unequivocal political stances in support of #blacklivesmatter, racial justice, critiquing anti-Blackness, and must be impacted by surge of anti-Asian activity!
Just because Naomi Osaka is a celebrity tennis star does not mean that she doesn’t hurt or feel immensely vulnerable in a very WHITE environment as she reads about escalating violence — physical, legislative, interpersonal, and institutional — against Blacks, and most recently Asians.
How could she not be emotionally impacted?
How could she not feel alone and a potential target for attacks (like Black soccer players have endured and is finally having soccer organizations acknowledged as an racial epidemic — https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/racism-soccer-epidemic-mirrors-disturbing-trends-europe-advocates/story?id=67850877 )?
And who, in the very white world of tennis, is going to look out for the interests of this Black Asian young woman?
Will it be the World Tennis Association (WTA), the World Tennis Federation (WTF), or the French Opens?
The correct Jeopardy answer: “Who is Nobody.”
Despite the “Statement from the USTA: USTA Mid-Atlantic stands with the Black Community in solidarity and in support now and always,” (https://www.usta.com/en/home/stay-current/midatlantic/statement-from-usta-mid-atlantic.html ), all of the leadership of professional tennis organizations and the organizers of the tournaments are almost exclusively white. Where are the BIPOC staff?
In penalizing Osaka, the WTA just stuck to the rules — they didn’t take time to listen and hear what she was saying:
“I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans. …
The irony, of course, is that all of this happened during Mental Health Awareness month (https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month).
The Growing Mental Health Crisis in America
How tone-deaf can professional athletic organizations be? We can only surmise from their actions — VERY — and that they have NO understanding of mental health, the need to replenish resilience for anyone — which is what all the media has been discussing during this pandemic.
What they also don’t recognize is “How COVID-19 Has Disproportionately Affected the Mental Health of Women and BIPOC Workers,” according to a May 2021 report of the same title by Times Up for Mental Health month (https://timesupfoundation.org/how-covid-19-has-affected-the-mental-health-of-women-and-bipoc-workers-disproportionately/ ).
Mental Health America (https://mhanational.org/about ) is the largest community-based nonprofit “…driven by its commitment to promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness…” In a recent website statement “BIPOC Communities and COVID-19,” MHA makes the following observation about the major impact on BIPOC people:
“…Stress has a physiological impact on the body’s immune system. It’s common to come down with a physical illness when you have a lot on your plate, but communities of color in America live with heightened levels of stress every day. Things like income inequality, discrimination, violence, and systemic racism contribute to chronic stress that can weaken immunity[iii], making these populations more vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19 (and the underlying health conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19).” (https://mhanational.org/bipoc-communities-and-covid-19 )
One article, “COVID-19: The mental health impact on people of color and minority groups,” cited by the MHA is from Medical News Today. It hones in on the enduring effects of racism, now coupled with the impact of the pandemic on BIPOC populations.
They quote from a 2018 position statement by the Royal College of Psychiatry (RCP) in the United Kingdom on “Racism and Mental Health” (https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/PS01_18a.pdf ), to substantiate their claim.
Unfortunately, though published three years ago, the RCP’s conclusions are just as relevant today; their report unequivocally stated
“…that racism and racial discrimination is one of many factors [that] can have a significant, negative impact on a person’s life chances and mental health.”
We know this to be true from lived experiences and previous studies by BIPOC scholars. But it is now confirmed by the CDC and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration), which recently reported on “Double Jeopardy: COVID-19 and Behavioral Health Disparities for Black and Latino Communities in the U.S.”
This brief report contains a list of mental health resources and highlights the fact that while Blacks comprise only “…13 percent of the total U.S. population,” they “…make up 30 percent of COVID-19 cases.” For Latinos, who are 18 percent of the population, the number of COVID-19 cases is 17 percent. SAMHSA also points out that although “…the rates of behavioral health disorders may not significantly differ from the general population, Blacks and Latinos have substantially lower access to mental health and substance-use treatment services…,” which they trace back to “racial and ethnic disparities in access to behavioral health care.” (https://mhanational.org/bipoc-communities-and-covid-19).
In effect, not only are BIPOC communities suffering the most in our current and post COVID-19 environment, which shows no signs of disappearing soon, but BIPOC mental health issues are on the increase. Yet significant data shows they are less likely to receive proper and efficient treatment because of systemic disparities in the health care service delivery system. That places BIPOCs at the greatest risk of mental health challenges, just as we were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Add to this the stress of living while Black in a state where police, until recently, had unbridled power to shoot unarmed Black men, women and children using the lame excuse, “I feared for my life.”
These data make Osaka’s decision to take a media mental health break all the more significant for publicly disclosing her mental health condition, and for standing up for her need to prioritize personal self-care over professional obligations and financial consequences.
Media as Information Seekers or Paparazzi?
What role, then, does the media play in all this? The media’s demand that Osaka be available to them is stunning since it came in the midst of May, designated as “Mental Health Awareness” month?
Also, one would think that media had learned some hard ethical lessons in light of Prince Harry’s recent Oprah reveal (https://www.npr.org/2021/03/08/974630523/harry-and-meghan-where-things-stand-and-ten-takeaways-from-the-big-oprah-intervi ) about his own mental health concerns and challenges, and that of his wife, Lady Megan Markel.
Now he and Oprah have teamed up for a new series on mental health called “The Me You Can’t See” (https://www.dw.com/en/prince-harry-and-oprah-discuss-mental-health-in-new-series/a-57585621 ). Of course, a featured guest should be Naomi Osaka.
Prince Harry also has been a critic of the media paparazzi, whom he feels contributed to his mother’s death.
The recent findings that former BBC reporter, Martin Bashir, used “deceitful tactics” to lure the late Princess Diana into a scathing interview supports Harry’s assertion that “a culture of exploitation and unethical practices” contributed to his mother’s demise (https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/prince-harry-says-culture-exploitation-20645112 ).
Towards this end, he has done his best to shelter his wife and growing family from media scrutiny. He has lambasted the British media for the racial bias it has displayed toward his biracial wife who identifies as Black.
Prince Harry and Oprah have partnered to produce a series on mental health (https://www.dw.com/en/prince-harry-and-oprah-discuss-mental-health-in-new-series/a-57585621 ). It should help our society better understand what it takes to function in this fast-paced, highly competitive, individualistic and sometimes ruthlessly so technologically dependent society.
We seemed to have lost touch with relationships, and empathy seems to be an antique. The show should draw attention since Oprah and Prince Harry both have a following.
The indictment of the media by Prince Harry, now substantiated by a BBC independent inquiry (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57189371 ), begs the question, what does it mean to “owe” the media? And why do athletes, or any public figure, have contractual “media obligations”?
Osaka answered this question to some extent when she posted a statement on Twitter, May 21, 2021,
“Hope you’re doing well, I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros. I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athlete’s mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
Osaka continues in the statement — a clear declaration of her emotional independence —
“…Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple of journalists have interviewed me since I was young… However, if the organizations think that they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
She concludes with these words:
“…I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
In the end, the meditation app Calm, stepped in to pay Osaka’s fine, and pledged to support and pay the fine of any athlete who declined to meet with the press for mental health reasons (https://afrotech.com/calm-app-pay-fines-naomi-osaka ).
Finally, on May 31, 2021, Osaka closed her second statement with these words:
“I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
While all media are not newshounds, of late, every media outlet, mainstream and otherwise, seemed locked in a survival battle to maintain their relevancy in the midst of the “fake news” mindset promulgated by the former 45th President. Many are in financial trouble and struggling on how to survive in a digital world.
Conservative political leaders are influencing their constituency to cancel print subscriptions to major news giants like the New York Times and Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/11/05/new-york-times-citrus-county-florida-library-subscription-rejected-fake-news/ ), while the instantaneousness of Twitter, Facebook Live, Instagram, YouTube Live, Clubhouse and other digital communications platforms can provide information more quickly than traditional media outlets.
Also, traditional media have not always been as diverse as their audiences; while, social media and digital journals have democratized news space and opened alternative pathways for new voices and different ways to stay informed.
Nonetheless, traditional journalists and sports commentators dominate the airways; they, along with those who pay their salaries, must now ask themselves, after the outpouring of public support for Osaka’s decision, whether they are “entitled” to pursue stories, even if it puts public individuals like her at emotional risk?
The exchange in a news clip between Sports Illustrated Robin Lundburg and writer Jon Wertheim seems extremely cavalier in light of Osaka’s choice: https://www.si.com/tennis/video/2021/05/28/should-the-wta-force-naomi-osaka-to-fulfill-media-obligations. Their raucous banter about such a serious matter is unbecoming, unprofessional, and insensitive.
What if it were their daughter’s, wife’s, mother’s, or sister’s mental health being discussed? Would they be so salacious and talk about a “professional responsibility to the media?” Would they treat a white athlete with such disdain?
Have journalists and TV commentators lost their humanity and now seek to punish Osaka for protecting hers? Only time will tell if we see a shift in media’s behavior
It does makes you pause and wonder when did being a professional athlete become akin to selling your soul to the media and professional athletic association devils?
We Got Your Back Osaka
I say “good for you” Naomi Osaka. The French Open won’t be the same without your presence. You are #blackasiangirlmagic. You are also a brave leader who is unafraid to speak her truth.
Do take some time off — a mental health break — and let the magic of your fans surround you and protect you.
I have no doubt you will rise again like the tennis phoenix that you are.
We love you and wish you a very heartfelt recovery and the replenishment of resilience.
Nothing else matters but you!
© 2001 Irma McClaurin. All Rights Reserved
Irma McClaurin, PhD/MFA (http://irmamcclaurin.com/) is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News and was named “Best in the Nation Columnist” by the Black Press of America in 2015. She is a diversity and community engagement consultant, activist anthropologist, award-winning writer, and leadership coach. Some former leadership positions include president of Shaw University, Chief Diversity Office at Teach For America, Ford Foundation Program Officer, and University of Minnesota Associate VP and founding executive director of UROC. She is the founder of the “Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and will soon release a collection of essays: JUSTSPEAK: Reflections on Race, Culture, and Politics in America.
Contact: http://email@example.com / @mcclaurintweets.