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The ‘enormous’ pressures of professional sports and its toll on players’ mental health

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open after being fined for skipping press conferences has led to new conversations about athletes, mental health and the media. At 23 years old, Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam winner, ranked second among women in tennis, and the highest paid female athlete in the world. Amna Nawaz explores some of the issues her case has raised.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tennis star Naomi Osaka's decision this week to withdraw from the French Open has led to major reaction and new conversations about professional athletes, mental health and the media.

    At 23 years old, she's not just the winner of four Grand Slams and ranked second among women in tennis. She's also the highest paid female athlete in the world.

    Amna Nawaz explores some of the issues this case has raised.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this all began when Naomi Osaka refused to speak to reporters after her first round victory at Roland-Garros on Sunday. She was fined $15,000.

    Then the leaders of the Grand Slam tournaments threatened suspension or even disqualification if Osaka did not meet her contractual obligations. Now, Osaka issued her own lengthy statement yesterday on Twitter, announcing she'd be withdrawing from the tournament to protect her mental health.

    She shared she suffered — quote — "long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018" and also what she called huge waves of anxiety before speaking to global media.

    For more on this, I'm joined by Zina Garrison. She's three-time mixed doubles Grand Slam champion, Olympic gold medalist and a former top five tennis player in the world, and also Howard Bryant. He's a sportswriter and author with Meadowlark Media. He's the author of the recent book "Full Dissidence" and a children's book about Serena and Venus Williams called "Sisters and Champions."

    Welcome to you both, and thank you so much for being here.

    Zina Garrison, I want to start with you, because you know what it is to be a superstar in this sport, to compete at the highest level, the pressure that comes with it.

    When Osaka said she wasn't going to do the press conferences because it was bad for her mental health, what was your reaction?

  • Zina Garrison:

    Well, my immediate thought was that someone probably should have talked to her before she actually put out the statement that she wasn't doing any press.

    But — and my second thought was that she was in trouble. So, I noticed that — right after Miami, that she actually said she was not going to be playing some tournaments, that she needed a rest. And so I kind of felt something was going on with her mentally.

    But the most important thing is that it's really tough, because, when you ask to step away and you ask people to let me step away, and then they don't give you that opportunity, and then it blows up to something else, it just builds on. More pressure comes on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard, help us understand what she's talking about here, though, because Osaka says it's those press conferences, having to take the questions.

    Give us a sense of what goes on in that room, because a lot of people say, this is part of this deal. When you compete at this level, you sit before journal journalists, and you take their questions.

    What would you say to that?

  • Howard Bryant,:

    Well, it's not just people who say that's part of the deal. It's the tournaments themselves. They're contractually obligated to be in those rooms.

    However, I just feel like, when you're looking at this, I just see no reason why this had to escalate to the degree that it did.

    Here's what happens with the — with media. Essentially, you go in to press — and Zina knows this. Tennis players have the most — they have — they're one of the athletes — it's an individual sport. It's a lonely sport. You're by yourself. And you do press after matches.

    There's no open locker room. There's no — it's not 24/7 access. However, immediately following wins and losses, you go. And there's a cooling-off period of 15 minutes, 20 minutes. And, sometimes, winners take a little bit longer time.

    But then you sit down and you talk. If you're going to win a championship, you're probably doing this eight times. And over the course of — over the course of a season, you're 'answering so many of the same questions.

    And I think, especially because you don't have teammates, you're being asked especially your deficiencies. And when you're looking at someone like Naomi Osaka, she was entering a period of the calendar where she does not play well. She hadn't played well on clay. She hadn't played on grass.

    Take that, combined with the fact that you have got the Olympics looming. Combine that with the fact that she's going to be asked to defend her U.S. Open championship, and then take all of that and then add to it the year anniversary both of the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, where she took a very prominent role, and it's very, very clear that the pressure is getting to her in terms of being out front.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zina Garrison, about this? Because this isn't about any one thing. It's not just about the sport, just about mental health.

    She is a Black woman who competes in a predominantly white sport in tennis. And you can't really kind of take apart all of those issues. They're all complicated and layered together. So, what about that? How much of a role do you think that plays?

  • Zina Garrison:

    Well, I was going to say, that plays a big part of it.

    And it's a role that, unless you're a Black athlete or in a — basically an all-white sport, you tend not to understand. Sometimes, it's just pressure, getting in, having to be able to go to the tennis court, and somebody just asking you to see your badge because they don't believe that you can play. There's little bitty things.

    But, in Osaka's case, she made $52 million last year. So, naturally, everybody's like, oh, so what's the big deal? She shouldn't have any problems or whatever.

    Well, she has sponsorships. She has people that are counting on her. She has to pay her team members. Everybody's pulling at her. She — and, also, these young players, especially young tennis players, they don't really have true friends.

    When I was growing up, I had the opportunity to have at least my high school friends that I could go and talk to when you don't talk about tenants. Now everyone around them is talking about — or trying to figure out how they can make them number one, or how they can get more sponsorship.

    So — and then you having to rely on social media and some of your friends or put things out that maybe you don't want to put out, and then someone comes back and says something. That's pressure within itself.

  • Howard Bryant,:

    Yes, I think Zina makes an amazing point here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zina…

  • Howard Bryant,:

    I was going to say that Zina is making an amazing point that we're not paying enough attention to as well.

    I think we have a real generational issue here as well. I think that, when you're looking at the way that this generation communicates, I think Zina made the point immediately that, once this went public, you're no longer talking about mental health and talking about what's going on with Naomi Osaka. Now it's a fight.

  • Zina Garrison:

    Yes.

  • Howard Bryant,:

    Now it's a fight between the Grand Slams, and it's between her, because I still feel like this story exploded the way that it did because the Instagram post took away any sort of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

    And then the Grand Slams, instead of the — instead of the French Open dealing with this individually, they go to Wimbledon. Then they consult with the U.S. Open. Then they consult with Tennis Australia. And now it looks like you have got this entire industry ganging up on a 23-year-old.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard, let me just ask you, what about that?

    Now, we have the Grand Slam tournaments coming out with a statement just this afternoon saying now that they do support Osaka, they will welcome her back when she's ready, but also saying that they're going to take steps to — quote — "improve the player experience" at the tournaments, including as it relates to media.

    What did you take away from that? What does that look like?

  • Howard Bryant,:

    Well, what I take away from this is that these are the conversations that should have taken place behind closed doors over the past several months.

    Number one, people have said that, well, if you have mental health issues, you cannot guess and determine and anticipate when that's going to happen. But when you read Naomi's statement, she's been dealing with this for a few years now. She already played to clay tournaments. She played Madrid and she played Rome.

    And somewhere along the line, someone in her team could have said, we need to go to the French Federation and say: I'm not doing well. Is there a way — these press conferences are nowhere near worth having the number two player in the world not be there.

    There's no reason that this could have happened — that this happened the way that it happened, except for the fact that these sides did not communicate. There had to be a work-around. There are plenty of ways to deal with this. Everybody lost here.

    She is climbing to a degree right now. She's got four majors already. The fans lost. The tournament lost. Everybody has lost in this, simply because of the lack of communication.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zina, what about the mental health part of this? Because, obviously, there's an epidemic in America. One in every five Americans has some kind of mental health diagnosable illness at any given year.

    Someone like Naomi Osaka, at the top of her game, number two in the world, the highest paid female athlete in the world, to come out and say this in this way, does this reveal this is actually much more prevalent at this level than we previously knew?

  • Zina Garrison:

    Well, it's very interesting, because Naomi would be the one that has brought up that there's not only mental health in the world, but there's mental health in sports.

    And I say that because we have championed her for what she was doing for social justice. And then now I don't think she was asking for this, but she has brought up something now that we're talking about which has been going on for quite some time with different athletes.

    But, for different athletes, when they come out and they say they need a rest or they're doing something and they say, oh, there's something wrong with them or they're crazy, without looking into the actual background of it.

  • Howard Bryant,:

    And one last thing to that, to Zina's point, is that these athletes are taught from day one, overcome. And if you don't, you're soft. If you don't, you're not tough enough, mental toughness, mental toughness, Mamba Mentality, all of these things.

    And there's no room in this, because, especially in tennis, you have no coaches, you have no teammates, you have no one to talk to.

  • Zina Garrison:

    Yes.

  • Howard Bryant,:

    And so everything that you do out there is up to you.

    So, the pressure that is on these athletes is enormous and substantial. And we make it seem like it's not a big deal because of two things, one, the enormous amount of money. And, two, we have this paternalism where we say, you're making a lot to play a kid's game.

    It's not a kid's game. It's a $100 billion industry.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, for all the controversy, all the debate, Naomi Osaka has us talking about all these important issues. And that is absolutely a good first step.

    Zina Garrison and Howard Bryant, thank you so much for your time.

  • Howard Bryant,:

    Thank you.

  • Zina Garrison:

    Thank you.

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