Listening to Naomi Osaka on Wellness. Sports are getting more attuned to mental health, but there’s still a long way to go.

By Jason Gay

On the matter of Naomi Osaka and the French Open: I suspect a day will come when people will look back upon this moment and be mystified by how agitated it all got, how a player opting out of routine press conferences and deciding to leave a tournament because of concern about her own mental health became such a global uproar. I suspect there will be a time in the future when an athlete’s revelation of depression and anxiety—or anyone’s revelation of depression and anxiety—won’t launch a zillion casual diagnoses or judgments about an alleged lack of mettle.

I think (I hope!) we’re going to reach a point that when a person says they’re in mental distress, we will just…listen. But we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet because mental health in sports, like in many occupations and environments, remains a complicated, under-discussed subject, still wrapped in stigma and dated notions about toughness and “gutting it out.” We’re getting better, no doubt about it—more workplaces are offering mental-health resources for employees, and in sports, Osaka has been preceded by star athletes like Michael Phelps, Abby Wambach, DeMar DeRozan, and Kevin Love, who have openly discussed mental-health battles of their own. 

It’s a work in progress, however. The awkward debate over Osaka’s departure signals that athletes and sports are still figuring this out. We’re not yet ready to nurture mental health in the way we do a pulled hamstring or badly sprained ankle. We might get there, though. “This is a huge step,” says Alexi Pappas, a former Olympic runner whose recent memoir, “Bravery,” chronicles her own battles with mental health.

By acknowledging her depression and social anxiety, and stepping away, Osaka is taking action, Pappas says. “She’s taking measures to treat her mental health like someone would treat their physical health,” she says. 

It took Pappas a while to get there. The Dartmouth and University of Oregon All-American, who lost her mother to suicide, struggled to reconcile her inner duress the same way she treated her bodily injuries; amid the peak moment of her career, the sadness and turmoil in her head made her feel guilty.

“I thought I was spoiled because, on paper, I had it all: I was successful, I’d just run the best race of my life, I was a national record holder and I didn’t think I deserved to feel the way that I felt,” she says. “I felt it was not allowed.”

Eventually, Pappas would come to view her mental health like she would any physical setback—that it was treatable and nothing to be ashamed of, and could heal, too. Now she shares that message with organizations like the Pentagon, which recently asked Pappas to speak to U.S. soldiers.

“We are very capable of doing amazing things, and telling ourselves that pain is just weakness,” Pappas says. “Sometimes we need permission to say, ‘The coach or doctor says no.’ As for the rest of the Osaka situation: miscommunication abounded here, but I think it’s pretty clear that tennis bungled the response. It’s utterly fair for the French Open to be irritated about Osaka stiffing the press, and to fine her, a penalty that Osaka expected. It’s also fair to worry about setting a precedent that other players might be enticed to follow. But to quickly align with the sport’s three other major events and threaten Osaka with suspension, which appears to have triggered her withdrawal, was a blunt overreaction—something the tournaments seem to have realized, judging from their far more humane statement on Tuesday.  Pro tennis, an occupation rife with early burnout, ought to be especially attuned to mental health. The sport is such a grinding pressure cooker—players are removed at an early age from families and ordinary childhoods and thrust into global competition in adolescence or even before. Osaka, who is 23, has had spectacular financial and on-court success—she, too, appears to have it all—but depression and anxiety doesn’t work like that. It’s not linear. Free passes are not handed out to high achievers. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, regularly fell into depressive, self-destructive episodes after his gold medal triumphs. 

Mental difficulty can be mysterious, even to the sufferer. We’re also still amid a pandemic in which ordinary interactions with other people have been stifled, and routines and lives have been disrupted. If you’re doing OK, it’s tempting to think everyone else should be doing OK, too. That’s not the way it goes, however. A little bit of empathy can go a long way. 

At the same time, I think we should tap the brakes on all this doomsday rhetoric over media access and sports press conferences. As someone who has spent a fair bit of time in these press conferences, I agree that they can veer into the banal and cringeworthy, but they do retain value for reporters seeking to clarify facts and understand actions. They have particular value for sports like tennis, which are fighting to stay relevant, and can’t start walling off media coverage. Big stars have big social media platforms, but not every person and event does, and those stories should be told, too. 

Also: an athlete’s relationship with the media is not a static thing. It’s common to see a player who is hesitant with the media early in their career get to a far more comfortable place later in their journey. Some of the great quote machines in sports wanted nothing to do with the media as they were coming up. It’s possible Naomi Osaka gets there herself. I’m sure there are some who remain dubious about the way this shook out, believing Osaka leaned on mental health as a cover to duck press obligations at a tournament where she was not considered a favorite. Her withdrawal shows she was clearly not playing around, and so the question becomes: what to do now? Giving someone who says they’re in pain the benefit of the doubt—and whatever space and assistance they need—feels like a low-risk, high-reward proposition. 

What is there to lose, really, by listening?