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Joanne O’Riordan: Osaka asks tough questions of those who ask the tough questions

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Naomi Osaka during the press conference after the first match of the 2020 Fed Cup Qualifier between Sara Sorribes of Spain and Naomi Osaka of Japan at Centro de Tenis La Manga Club on February 07, 2020 in Cartagena, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto)

Japanese star has raised important issue of the limits of an athlete’s responsibilities

Naomi Osaka has a platform, and she knows how to use it. She’s not like the athletes of yesterday, where media consumption was a necessity to boost their profile.

Social media has given athletes, admittedly through PR/marketing teams, a direct link to fans. Online publications such as the Players Tribune promise an athlete’s story, in their words only, for the fans, thus providing unique access to stuff you’d never usually hear. From racism to MeToo, from concussion to everyday sexism. Media consumption has changed, but mainstream media hasn’t really changed with it.

It was about a day after Roland Garros and the three other Grand Slams issued a statement when Coco Gauff received a very odd question. A journalist very confidently put their chest out and asked her whether people compared her to Serena Williams because she’s black. I’ll let you reread that to digest it.

We have to look at ourselves too inside the media. Nobody, from athlete to manager to maor uisce owes us anythin
Osaka said that press conferences aren’t good for her mental health. Some pummelled her, saying she was using mental health as an excuse to avoid contractual duties.

Some said they wouldn’t be allowed to half work and then go home based on their mental health. I know some companies wheel out mental health taglines all the time, but this is the first time someone has stood up and said their job doesn’t require unlimited access to their lives.

Others even said she uses the media when it suits her. You know, the rude and ignorant Osaka once turned up for every match at the US Open wearing facemasks with the names of black people killed by police. God forbid she used the media to highlight racism in America.

And others even say isn’t the life of a sports reporter hard enough without the added inconvenience of a tussle between an athlete versus the press.

I am for every athlete doing a press conference, not only as a wannabe sportswriter myself, but as a fan. But even I can tell the answers are reeled off a hymn sheet.

Is it vital for Mick Bohan or Peter Keane to tell me, a fan with eyes, that a double-digit victory was a tough day out? I’m sure when Brian Fenton or Sinead Aherne tell me that whatever team they’ve just slaughtered should be commended, internally, they’re laughing at how stupid the whole thing is.

But, we have to look at ourselves too inside the media. Nobody, from athlete to manager to maor uisce owes us anything. We are not a government or governing body. In my opinion, the least we can do on our end is to be just as open, aware, fresh and understanding as the athletes we’re interacting with.

The larger problem with sports journalism and, admittedly, other areas of journalism is that, due to lack of investment, the whole thing has gotten repetitive and stale in some areas. People on all sides are getting jaded. They’re tired from the same run of the mill stuff year in, year out, yet remain in cushy gigs and aren’t challenged.

You have to freshen things up. If you’re just going through the motions, absolutely everyone can tell. Shake-ups and switch-ups can be good.
Tabloid dream

We also need to look at the way we’re shaping ideals with the way we write things. In the incredible Tiger Woods documentary, his marriage to Elin was a tabloid dream. But, the casual scoffing went very quickly into misogyny. Some reporters asking if Elin would upset Woods at his game and therefore ruin our fun.

That filters through, and then you have red top articles dehumanising athletes and using wealth as an excuse. Sure, Raheem Sterling is a millionaire, why is he flying EasyJet? Why does he not like it when we criticise him for buying a car with his well-earned money?

All of this goes through society and even semi-apologises for minor racist behaviour. Naomi Osaka has millions in her bank account, let’s question her on body image, the killings of black people, but also shut up and serve.

Athletes aren’t dumb either. They are sharp, they are humans. Expecting them to bow down or genuflect when someone is sarcastic or scoffs at them or asks them gross and invasive questions is wrong, and yet everyone is forced to sit in a room and experience the tense and awkward dynamic.

The line between “don’t befriend those you cover” and “athletes are not genetical freaks who are automatons” is enormous, and yet some assume athletes are there solely for our entertainment.

That isn’t to say this is all doom and gloom. For me, Osaka examines this dynamic in a way we haven’t seen before. She is an extremely focused, well-rounded and earnest person who understands athletes are multi-dimensional, all of these dimensions must be in harmony to succeed.

Her problem is she’s asking uncomfortable questions of those who insist on asking uncomfortable questions.

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