A NEW ERA

Here's why it's time to expect more from sports media coverage

Rockets' coach Stephen Silas had some tough media sessions. Image via: Rockets Zoom/Screenshot.

Last week, Naomi Osaka announced that she wouldn't attend press conferences at the French Open tennis tournament and accused sports organizations of not caring about athletes' mental health.

This week the French Open proved her correct.

Tournament officials fined Osaka $15,000 after she didn't do a press conference after her first round win and threatened heavier fines and possible disqualification from the event if she continued to avoid the press. Tennis' other Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open, rubber stamped the French Open's punishment and threats.

Osaka answered by dropping out of the French Open.

Instead of bullying Osaka, tennis should applaud her for recognizing that she has mental health issues and is trying to deal with them. Osaka said that she has social anxiety and has battled with depression for several years. She said that attending press conferences triggers her depression, especially when she loses a match and reporters harp on her failure.

"I've watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."

Whether she's right or wrong, it doesn't matter. She feels that way and that's enough.

Osaka isn't some low-ranked, publicity-seeking diva. She is a wondrously talented, thoughtful woman who recognizes her frailties and wants to protect her mental health. She isn't, as one British hack journalist just called her, "world sport's most petulant little madam cynically exploiting mental health to silence the media." And you wonder why Osaka has problems with some reporters?

Explaining her withdrawal from the French Open, Osaka wrote on social media: "I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media."

If you're a tennis fan, you might have seen this coming. When she wins a match, she often pulls her visor over her face to hide from the applause. She apologizes to the crowd if she beats a local favorite. "I know you wanted her to win," she'll say. At press conferences, she says, "I'm sorry," if her answer runs more than a couple of sentences.

There's an easy solution to tennis' problem with Naomi Osaka not wishing to attend post-match press conferences: don't make her. In fact, that goes for all players in all sports. How many times did we watch Rockets coach Stephen Silas suffer the same questions this year, game after game, loss after loss? Bill Belichick's press conferences used to be painfully funny, now he's just a jerk. Here are the keys to winning tonight's game: "We have to stay aggressive and play as a team." Enough already.

Osaka has won four Grand Slam tournaments, including the last two. She is the highest-earning female athlete in the world, the first Japan-born woman to reach No. 1 in tennis, and will be one of the hosts of the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo.

She is more than a great tennis player. While her voice rarely rises above an apologetic whisper, her social activism speaks loud and clear. At last year's U.S. Open, Osaka walked on court with different face masks, each one bearing the name of a victim of police brutality. She brought seven masks, one for each round it would take to reach the final, in case she got that far. She did. She won the tournament. She won the 2021 Laureus World "Sportswoman of the Year" award. She was named "Sports Person of the Year" by Sports Illustrated for her great play on a tennis court and courage off it.

Now tennis seems determined to drive this gifted woman from the sport she plays so magnificently. Over something so inconsequential as post-match press conferences? Could tennis really have its head that far up its butt?

Let me tell you about tennis press conferences. Because of budget cutbacks, and the fact that tennis still remains a relatively fringe sport, big city media outlets rarely have a dedicated tennis reporter. In Houston, TV stations don't report the scores from the U.S. Clay Court Tennis Championship played down the street at River Oaks Country Club. Daily newspapers will assign a rookie or lesser regarded sports writer to cover local tournaments.

Tennis officials say it's important for players to attend press conferences to spread the word and grow the sport. I've been to many post-match press conferences in Houston, America and Europe. Let me tell you, they're usually boring, typically inane and occasionally a blood sport between player and reporter.

If post-match interviews are so valuable, how come the Tennis Channel, which is 24/7/365 tennis, doesn't air them? Except for a few worldly personalities, like Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Andy Roddick, players rarely say anything more introspective than, "It was a tough match today and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's match."

It's like that scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner's character tells a young pitcher, "It's time to work on your interviews. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them, they're your friends."

Maybe at one time post-match press conferences were important if players had something they wanted to share with fans or the public. But players now have unfiltered personal websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. They can interact directly with the public without depending on the media to act as a conduit.

The French Open has lost Naomi Osaka, one of the most popular, admired and important athletes in the world. The tournament is less now.

Who knows when we'll see Osaka back playing tennis? "I'm gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans," she wrote.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
NASCAR is coming to Texas! Photo via: Wiki Commons

It’s an All-Star weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series at Texas Motor Speedway. As most fans know, this race is extremely different from what we see on a usual Sunday. This race is an invitational event featuring the winners from the 2021 and 2022 seasons with a few qualifiers including past champions and past All-Star winners over the last ten seasons. As it does every year, the format for this race has changed. It will be divided into four stages, and the winner of each of the first three stages will take up the first three spots on the grid (as long as they finish 15th or higher). The final stage will be fifty laps and if there is no caution between laps 15-25, then the yellow will be thrown to stack everything up. Probably the most important and intriguing change to the format won’t take place on race day, but during qualifying. The field will be given one lap and the fastest eight will advance to the final round, where they will each face-off head-to-head in a bracket. Each paring will have a mandatory pit-stop before exiting, and the first car back to the finish line moves on. This is a unique way of deciding who starts where, I would not be surprised in the slightest if it comes back somewhere down the line in the future

Last week, Kurt Busch went on to score his first victory of the year. It didn’t come easy for the 2004 champion, he had to fend off Kyle Larson and his brother Kyle Busch. The race was marred by numerous tire failures, as it seemed drivers could only go 25-35 laps before running into an issue. Luckily for Kurt, the cautions fell at the right time and he was able to manage his tires as he dominated the race by leading a race-high 116 laps. This was the first win for the #45 car at 23XII racing, as now both Busch and his teammate Bubba Wallace both have victories. While it’s been a frustrating season for this team, this win couldn’t have come at a better time.

While Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan celebrated their team win, Stewart-Haas racing was on the opposite end of the spectrum. All four of their cars finished outside the top ten, including their franchise driver Kevin Harvick. It’s worth noting that despite the disastrous day that he had, Harvick could bounce back with a respectable 15th-place finish. This team has a lot of questions regarding the future of their driver lineup. We know that next season Aric Almirola will retire, but after that who will fill the seat? Will it be their reserve driver Ryan Preece? Could it even be Kyle Busch? With these types of disappointing results from Harvick, many have wondered if he might decide to retire at the end of the 2022 season. This will be a team to follow in the coming months.

As we reach the dog days of summer, the infamous silly season is right around the corner. This is when the rumors start to become louder and louder about who will go next season and what rides will be available. As I mentioned earlier, Kyle Busch is easily the biggest question on the grid, with Mars leaving at season's end, can Joe Gibbs racing find him a sponsor to keep him in the #18 Toyota? There were reports on Thursday that the team was in negotiations with a “major tech company” to sponsor the car for one season. It’s clear that re-signing the two-time champion is the number one priority for Joe Gibbs and Toyota. TRD Executive David Wilson stated that losing him would be, “Unacceptable.” It will be interesting to see this story develop.

With that, the driver I have winning the All-Star Race this weekend is none other than Kyle Busch. Overall, it’s hard to find active drivers with better stats here at this track than him as he’s won here four times, the most among the field. He’s also led over 1,069 laps here, almost more than double the amount of the next closest driver (Martin Truex Jr with 674). When Jimmie Johnson stepped away from the sport in 2020, it was clear that the torch was handed over to Kyle as the best driver at this racetrack. He will be the driver to beat for the million dollars when the checkered flag falls.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome