In the past fortnight, two events in the sporting world have reinforced the notion that ‘the game is just a game’ and that the health, safety and welfare of athletes must take precedence over other competing interests.
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open at Roland Garros – one day after she was fined and threatened with expulsion by organisers for her decision not to speak to the press during the tournament – prompted a timely discussion.
This discussion centred around the relationship between athletes and the media, the need for post-match press conferences and most importantly the effects heightened media attention can have on the mental health and wellbeing of athletes.
Osaka released a statement following her withdrawal from the event in which she reiterated her desire not to be the focus of media intrigue following her decision and for the attention to return to the on-court action.
“This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago”, she said on her social media accounts. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal, and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly”, added the 23-year-old world number two.
Osaka’s last point is in response to accusations she used mental health concerns as a justification for her press embargo, an accusation which is not only unnecessary but also risks undoing much of the work that has been done in promoting and advancing mental health causes in a sporting context.
This is not the first time that a female tennis player has expressed such sentiments. At the 1999 US Open, a tearful Jennifer Capriati broke down when confronted with questions about her relationship by the media and their continued interest in her personal life.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, such invasive scrutiny was concerning at the time given Capriati had previously gone on record about contemplating suicide due to tennis burnout and issues over her appearance and relationships – issues not too dissimilar to those experienced by Osaka.
In recent years, prominent sportsmen such as Michael Phelps, Kevin Love and Lin Jong have bravely spoken about their mental health experiences and the stigmas often associated with male athletes opening up about their feelings.
According to research conducted by Athletes for Hope, up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest itself as stress, burnout, eating disorders, panic attacks, depression, anxiety or a combination of the aforementioned experiences.
That number could be even greater considering athletes are often discouraged from discussing their mental health and that such data predates the pandemic which has served to increase the demands on elite sporting professionals, often in increasingly isolating environments.
In an interview with The Athletic earlier this year, NBA superstar Damian Lillard – commonly associated as a dominant on-court alpha superhuman –revealed he was emotionally exhausted following the deaths of six close family members and friends in the past 18 months.
“What really matters in life, you know. When you consider that, and when you consider what your family is going through, it’s a battle mentally to put yourself in that place where the game is the most important thing right now”, said the Portland Trail Blazers guard.
Such sentiments serve to highlight how athletes – despite their celebrity and elevated status – face the same real-world difficulties encountered by everyday individuals and that no amount of fame or money leaves them immune from those pressures and traumas.
Many sports stars have gone on record and discussed how they are aware and affected by what gets written about them by not only the professional media, but also on social media which can often seem like a cesspit of negativity and toxicity.
In this context, it is imperative that sporting bodies, media organisations and fans alike are more empathetic to the plights of athletes irrespective of their standing within society, and that a more considered approach is adopted when such stakeholders engage and interact with them. This is not mutually exclusive with the hyper-commercialisation of sport.
It is possible to have both compassion for Osaka and recognise that media accessibility is imperative to maintain the public interest that drives revenues. The objective must be to manage the nexus of sport and public interest in a sustainable way.
The way many sports are starting to deal with the inevitable risks within sport is working with player associations through collective bargaining to ensure there is an adequate allocation of funding to health, wellbeing and education support to mitigate against these risks.
Hypothetically, would tennis players object if a minuscule share of prizemoney was allocated to health and wellbeing support – likely not – and it may be the type of model that ensured Osaka was able to compete in Paris.
This issue has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and a necessary balance needs to be struck in ensuring that contractual obligations disrupted by the impacts of the pandemic are met while seeking to alleviate the risks compressed performance schedules have in jeopardising the health and safety of athletes.
This issue has loomed large since the restart of numerous sporting competitions following the initial halt in competitive activity in March 2020 and resurfaced following the collapse and near-death experience of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen at the ongoing European Championships.
While there is nothing so far to suggest that Eriksen’s cardiac arrest was caused by an increasingly rigorous work schedule, several of his contemporaries took to social media and contemplated what effects such demands have on players.
One of the most prominent was Bournemouth and Bosnia and Herzegovina international goalkeeper Asmir Begovic who wrote “the health and wellbeing of players has long been ignored. Shoving more and more games in more condensed periods will only lead to bigger health issues for players”.
A report by ESPN last week confirmed that non-COVID-related injuries in the NBA rose to its highest level since recording began with a concerning rise in the spate of soft-tissue injuries hampering many of the league’s most marketable names throughout the condensed 2020/2021 season schedule.
When athletes do catch COVID, they are often rushed back into competition following their initial isolation and recovery periods, with little known about the long-terms effects of the virus and its impact on bodily functions and processes.
While no one can deny that preserving and expanding commercial and media interests in sports leads to increased revenue streams and wealth generation for its athletes, a balance needs to be upheld whereby athlete health (both mental and physical), safety and wellbeing is safeguarded.
Athletes, after all are only human and their incredible abilities of perseverance and fortitude should not be taken for granted. Their competitive domains act as workplaces and like any workplace, a safe and professional working environment is paramount to inducing good health, happiness, and success.