Instead of a fine, give Osaka some space

  When Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open Monday, it ignited a story that seems destined to linger, one entwined in elements of responsibility, compassion and common sense.

  And understanding, or lack thereof.

  Osaka is the No. 2-rated women’s tennis player in the world, and four times a Grand Slam winner. After her first-round victory in Paris, she opted not to attend a post-match press conference and was fined $15,000. She then announced she was withdrawing from the tournament, saying she has suffered long bouts of depression since 2018 and that addressing the media stirs “huge waves of anxiety” in her.

  Along the way, Osaka was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with additional sanctions, including disqualification or suspension.

  Osaka ought to get the benefit of the doubt here, at least for now. While the reference to “huge waves of anxiety” might seem grandiloquent to some, and it might even elicit eye-rolls from some of Osaka’s competitors, we need to remember: Everybody is not wired the same. A ho-hum event for some folks is a trigger for others. By now, we should be attuned to the reality that depression and anxiety are ominous conditions that deserve our consideration.

  So where does that concern meet Osaka’s need to attend press conferences?

  Ah, the press conference. I only attended maybe a few thousand of them. Or so it seemed. But yes, they can be valuable. Even if you’re gung-ho, balls-to-the-wall athletes’ rights, you should realize that sports figures speaking at press conferences is some of the oil that makes the machine work. Through such encounters do athletes and coaches communicate with fans (although, yes, it’s happening via a bunch of different platforms these days).

  A lot of questions at press conferences are yawners, and trust me, I’ve asked my share. But some questions are simply aimed at seeking the subject to open up, to probe whether he or she might have something to get off a chest. And sometimes, you know you’re going to get an answer just as sleep-inducing as the question, but it’s worthwhile because the speaker has a certain gravitas.

  Osaka is that sort of figure. And among the likely outcomes from this developing impasse is that some of her competitors are likely to feel some unease, annoyance maybe, that she’s not part of the media show. As much as they may empathize with her condition, their patience may begin to peter out if they perceive they’re having to bear something she isn’t.

  But we’re not there yet, and what strikes me about the Osaka-French Open contretemps is how seemingly so little discussion took place before the separation. Was there no agent heads-up with the tournament, no attempt to come to a meeting of the minds beforehand? Among the outcomes – certainly not the largest – is the gritting of teeth among the tournament organizers, who not only have to take on the assumption that a French Open without Osaka turns into French toast, but that they’re tone-deaf to a serious illness.

  I’m reminded of a dispute a generation ago involving a guy from Eugene, who’s now a head coach at the University of Oregon. Casey Martin, born with a debilitating circulatory disease in one leg, fought a long and fractious fight with the PGA tour seeking to be allowed to ride a cart at its tournaments. He cited the Americans with Disabilities Act and the danger that walking posed to his leg. Golf, which pretty much invented the adjective “hidebound” – and desiring to portray walking a golf course as akin, to, know, scaling K-2 or competing in the Iron Man – battled Martin all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost 7-2.

  (The authenticity of Martin’s quest was reinforced when, in 2019, the Oregon golf coach experienced a misstep retrieving a garbage bin from his curb and broke the weakened leg, putting him in danger of an amputation.)

  Whether it’s physical or mental health, it was true then and it’s true now. Not everybody falls neatly into the same box. And Osaka deserves forbearance, while, you would hope, she shows tournament suits she wants eventually to make good on press conferences.

  Monday, the leaders of the four Grand Slam events came forth with a statement promising to address concerns about players’ mental health. This, a couple of days  after their collective threat to sanction Osaka in the future.

  They did a lot better with the second statement than the first.