Naomi Osaka and the Power of Stardom
Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open rather than participate in mandatory press conferences is as much about media access in the social media age as it is the unequal treatment of female athletes, and especially women of color. Osaka, who is 23, the number-two-ranked female player in the world, with close to $50 million in endorsement earnings last year and a highly engaged fan base (with nearly four million followers between Twitter, Instagram and TikTok) is not playing by the traditional rules of tennis, a sport whose governing body has been overwhelmingly white and male.
When it comes to a philosophical debate between enduring a $15,000-a-pop fine from Roland-Garros, Osaka has the upper hand. As Roxane Gay tweeted in response to Osaka’s May 26 tweet announcing her intention to skip the media avails, “I am enjoying this ‘fine me, I don’t care’ energy.”
In what now looks like a miscalculated exercise in bluff-calling, all four Grand Slams issued a statement threatening to escalate the issue with more penalties and possibly a suspension. Days later, Osaka — a somewhat awkward presence on the circuit who has described herself as “extremely shy” — withdrew citing her mental health, revealing that she had endured extended bouts of depression since winning her first Grand Slam at the 2018 U.S. Open. A stream of athletes voiced support for Osaka, even though as many, but not all, acknowledged the importance of submitting to media questioning.
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It’s notable that Osaka’s sponsors, including Nike, issued statements of support in the wake of her withdrawal. But as Rick Burton, the David Falk professor of sports management at Syracuse University, notes, her sponsors could apply some “gentle pressure on her. The more visible she is, the more valuable her sponsorship is.”
That it should have never come to this is obvious now. But the contretemps underscores the power athletes of Osaka’s stature command in a social media-fueled star-driven enterprise.
“This gives her a space to control her narrative and context by sharing what she wants, when she wants to share it,” said Blake Lawrence, chief executive officer of the athlete marketing platform Opendorse, which helps athletes maximize their brands. “Whether the message is shared with reporters or via an Instagram post, fans and media will listen.”
Tension between athletes and the media has existed since the dawn of organized sports. Depending on your perspective, social media and endorsement riches have either fueled rampant egotism that allows athletes to elude unfavorable or uncomfortable lines of inquiry or democratized a media system by eliminating the reporter as interpretive middle man. It’s worth pointing out that, until now, Osaka has made herself available to the press. And she’s certainly not the first athlete to be fined for skipping a required media avail. Other athletes have employed more confrontational and dismissive strategies in an effort to say nothing of value to the media — even while they’re in the room. Marshawn Lynch’s Super Bowl 2015 Media Day appearance during which he answered every question posed to him with some variation of: “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” is but one recent, and infamous, example.
And anyone who has taken part in a press conference or watched one on TV knows that there will always be rote or offensive questions. There also is anecdotal evidence that women have to endure more low-quality questions than their male peers. On May 28, a reporter posed the following inane question to Coco Gauff at a post-match press conference at Roland-Garros: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters, maybe it’s because you’re Black,” said the journalist, according to multiple accounts from others in the room. “I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American, too. We could have a final between you and Serena. Is it something you hope for? I mean, 22 years separate you girls.”
Even when the questions are not racialized, the demographics of the room often are. “I’ve been in so many press conferences where it’s an NCAA college basketball game and it’s Black women [players] and they’re looking out on a sea of white men who are asking the questions,” said Lindsay Gibbs, a veteran women’s basketball beat reporter and one of the cohosts of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down. “Do I think that if the media were more diverse that would make a lot of these Black athletes more comfortable? Yes. Because ultimately, they’re having their stories told by people who don’t share their identities and don’t understand the weight that they carry.”
But the press availability, as uncomfortable as it can be, especially after a loss, remains an important element of media coverage, especially for women’s sports. Cheryl Cooky, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Purdue University, has tracked media coverage of women sports for three decades. In her most recent study, published in March, Cooky and her coauthors found that the amount of media coverage of women’s sports has not increased appreciably in 30 years. In 2019, the study found, coverage of women athletes on televised news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” totaled only 5.4 percent of all airtime; in 1989 and 1993, it was 5 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively. And in 2019, much of the women’s sports hole was consumed by the Women’s World Cup; overall coverage drops to a paltry 3.5 percent if the tournament is removed.
“Ultimately, I think we would be losing a lot if we didn’t get any post-game or post-match reaction,” continued Gibbs. “But there has to be good faith and empathy in these interactions. And we all have to be willing to make exceptions or accommodations when necessary, while ensuring the press is getting what they need to do their jobs. I don’t know what that looks like. But I think that’s the conversation we need to have.”
The correlation between coverage of women’s sports and funding are inextricably linked. Title IX effectively addressed the funding chasm — as Cooky points out in her study, participation in sports by school-age girls has increased from one in 27 to one in three since Title IX was passed in 1972. Since a media version of Title IX is not forthcoming, getting media coverage of women’s sports — on a qualitative and quantitative metric — to something approaching parity with men’s sports will take a generational sea change. That is what we are increasingly witnessing, and not just this week from Roland-Garros. Last March, social media posts from NCAA women’s basketball players Sabrina Ionesco and Sedona Price that called out the inexcusable disparity between the men’s and women’s training facilities at the Final Four tournament went viral. None of these athletes are following the old rules of the moribund system.
“One of my hopes is that young people are going to change things,” said Elizabeth Emery, a former Team USA cyclist who hosts the Hear Her Sports podcast. “They have a different attitude. They have a different attitude about media. They’re not going to take inequality, they’re not going to take being treated differently. Women have been screaming and yelling about this for years. But the young women aren’t going to take it anymore.”
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