The Irish Times view on sport and mental health: high-level hypocrisy

The treatment of Naomi Osaka is a stark reminder of elite sports organisations’ empty rhetoric

The weeklong confrontation between Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis, and leaders of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments deterioriated last week when Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. Photograph: Pete Kiehart/ The New York Times

The weeklong confrontation between Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis, and leaders of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments deterioriated last week when Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. Photograph: Pete Kiehart/ The New York Times

 

In recent years sport has been exceptionally active at encouraging people to talk about issues of mental health. In Ireland, high-profile players now speak publicly about their own experiences and how and where to seek help.

That has helped to normalise mental health issues, with a healthy emphasis on the message that anxiety and depression are not signs of weakness but common problems – sometimes serious and requiring attention, sometimes normal emotional responses to stressful situations.

However, in this as in other areas, elite sport is prone to saying one thing and doing another. The treatment of top tennis player Naomi Osaka is a stark example.

Osaka, ranked two in the world, believed the best way to address her mental health concerns was to avoid answering questions at post-match press conferences at the French Open, one of the four major tennis events. For that she would pay a €15,000 fine after each match – of which there would be seven if she reached the final.

Osaka, showing admirable self-awareness, was taking a step she felt was important to her health. How did tennis respond? It said no, as it needed the biggest name in the women’s game to promote the event. In a strongly worded response, the sport threatened to expel Osaka from future tournaments. Again, she took the matter into her own hands and withdrew from Roland Garros ahead of her second-round match. Osaka subsequently released a statement explaining she had suffered long bouts of depression since 2018.

What emerges is a sense of a sport whose rhetoric of supporting players is not matched by actions. The needs of sponsors and the corporate world trumped Osaka’s need to preserve her health. The sport demanded bang for its buck – as all tournaments do, from the Olympic Games to Premier League soccer. In doing so it showed stunning hypocrisy, placing the preservation of its media model ahead of its star player. The result was the tone-deaf nature of elite sport laid bare, and the old attitude of telling athletes to “shut up and dribble” exposed for all to see.

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