Last week a woman by the name of Naomi Osaka walked away from her job. This wasn’t just any job; she is the Japanese professional tennis player ranked 2nd in the world and the job, the French open. Why did she walk away? Because this job was putting her mental health at risk.
The story goes, Naomi was obligated to take part in numerous press conferences after all her tennis matches, however, since she has dealt with long bouts of depression since 2018, she felt unable to attend these events without a massive personal cost to herself.
In her statement Osaka openly admitted she “gets huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media. “Here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she wrote.
After learning of Osaka’s decision, the world Tennis Association said it welcomed a dialogue with her about mental health but stood by its position on press obligations for players. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story,” the WTA said.
Naomi Osaka rebuffed and walked away, saying.
“If an organization think they can keep saying, ‘do press or else’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centrepiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” Naomi
There was a mixed reaction to her decision.
Fellow tennis professionals Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty said they disagreed with Osaka and that speaking to the news media was part of the job. Certain media pundits and twitter trolls were out in force calling Naomi a petulant spoilt child who needs to get over herself.
At the opposite end, sponsors, celebrities, and some of her contemporaries came out to support her. Serena Williams issued a statement saying she could identify with the anxiety regarding news conference scrutiny and has experienced it frequently after matches herself.
This is a tricky one, isn’t it? Naomi Osaka was paid €55 million dollars last year to play tennis and talk to the media afterwards. So, what’s the big deal? Surely, she can suck it up for a few minutes after each game and answer some questions. Every other player has to do it, why should she get special treatment. I mean seriously if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, right?
But here’s the thing. What if she can’t. I mean, what if she really can’t do it?
What if living with depression is so dampening and exhausting you have to spend every minute of every day managing your thoughts and feelings to ensure you don’t fall into a black hole you can never get out of.
What if living with anxiety is so overwhelming and petrifying you have to spend every minute of every day managing your activities and interactions so as not to trigger a panic attack that leaves you paralysed.
What if she has spent years hiding her depression and anxiety from the world for fear of the indifference, ignorance, and outcome, only to find out she was right all along.
What if we don’t dismiss, ridicule, or belittle Naomi’s claims of mental health. What if she is telling the truth? What if the cost to her is too much? What if this is the reality of a mental illness?
How can it be right to give someone, already dealing with so much, an ultimatum that gives them no choice but to walk away.
Let me leave you with a quote from seven times formula one champion Lewis Hamilton who I think sums it up beautifully in his support for Naomi.
“Mental health is not a joke; this is real and serious. This takes a lot of courage to do. Let’s all make sure Naomi knows she’s not alone. Today is a good day to check and ask your friends and loved ones how they are doing and let them know they are not alone”