When Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open last week citing depression, the world finally woke up to the dearth of mental health support being offered to athletes – and particularly Black and brown sportswomen. What needs to be done to stop other players from experiencing the same issue?
This week, Naomi Osaka – four-times Grand Slam singles tennis champion – gave her first press conference since pulling out of the French Open. She was answering questions on her own fitness regime and the recent devasting earthquake in Haiti when a sports journalist left her visibly upset after forcing her to explain her mental health struggles.
Osaka left Paris earlier in the season citing depression and social anxiety, and in this press conference, the reporter said: “You’re not crazy about dealing with us (the media), especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform.” He went on to ask – twice – how she managed to “balance the two”, suggesting that she relies on the press to further her own agenda and therefore, should kowtow to their needs.
Yet again, the lack of compassion shown towards Osaka has prompted a wider discussion about the pressures put on young sportswomen and the unique mental health issues that women of colour face in such industries.
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The reaction to Naomi’s decision to leave the French Open back in June was utterly predictable: prominent players like Serena Williams, Coco Gauff and Billie Jean King, who understand what it’s like to navigate the world of top-level tennis offered their support. Commentators such as Piers Morgan, on the other hand, decided to criticise her decision to shun the press as a way of protecting her declining mental wellbeing.
To many of us, it’s likely unsurprising to learn that a young, mixed-race woman at the pinnacle of her career now needs to take a break. Who wouldn’t struggle with the consistent press attention and calls to comment on distressing and triggering issues like racism and sexism on a near-daily basis? According to two-time Olympian Ashley Nelson, these two factors are much more to blame for Naomi’s decline than the pressure that comes from competing.
“While what Naomi is going through is very sad, it’s nothing to do with the fact that she’s a young woman at the height of her career,” she tells Stylist. “When you’re in elite sport, you have every right after a competition – if you haven’t performed well – to not talk to the press. After a competition, your arousal is very high. You might not be thinking very clearly and you might not want the press asking you questions that leave you very exposed.” Despite that apparent right, however, Naomi was fined by the French Open on 30 May 2021 for refusing to engage with reporters.
Nelson, co-founder of personal training company The Athlete Method and ambassador for the mental health charity Sane, explains that one of the biggest challenges for Black women in sport is “being seen as the aggressor” – something that can make them vulnerable to press attacks. You only have to look at how Serena Williams has been covered by cartoonists and reporters in the past to see how athletic strength and power are manipulated into overt misogynoir.
“In high-level sport in particular, you’ve got to be dominant, you’ve got to have a high level of arousal and that’s misconstrued a lot. Many women also don’t get the exposure that they deserve for the accolades that they achieve and they’re not always painted in a positive light, which massively affects their mental health.”
Osaka’s dropout from the Paris tournament came shortly after she gave a statement announcing that she wouldn’t be doing any press at the competition – a highly unusual move in a sport that partly relies on a pack of reporters who follow players around the world. Nelson empathises with the journalists who have a job to do and a story to write, but stresses that “the press needs to be aware of how they make athletes feel – especially women of colour”.
“I totally get why Osaka doesn’t want to be interviewed. That pressure can be very detrimental to your mental health when you’re having to explain to the whole world (if you’re being interviewed on a global scale) why you didn’t perform at your best – before you’ve even talked to your coach about it and dissected the performance itself.”
Rather than doubling down on the rhetoric that “interviews are compulsory”, “sports federations, event organisers and the media need to adapt to the times,” says Nike athlete and SWTC trainer, Risqat Fabunmi-Alade. Contractual obligations to do post-match interviews are “fine”, so long as organisers “accept that on some occasions, the athlete might not feel mentally well enough to do them.” That, Risqat explains, could be because the tournament is ongoing, they’ve had a crippling loss or they’re already mentally struggling and “making it onto the pitch/court/track is tough enough.”
“Athletes are regular people. Talent and money don’t exclude them from mental health problems and down days,” she adds.
It’d be wrong to overlook the mental health impact that the last 18 months have had on many people, particularly those within the Black community. Those of us who have Black dads, brothers and uncles found George Floyd’s murder highly distressing – and the subsequent protests, trials and other state-sanctioned killings exhausting. Naomi Osaka has continually advocated for Black Lives Matter, wearing masks emblazoned with the names of Black victims of police brutality at last year’s US Open.
While anti-racism activism may be a personal passion, continually having to advocate and speak about racism can also be tiring in a climate that isn’t always accepting or when you’re unduly turned to for comment and opinion just because of your racial identity – as runner and PT, Tashi Skervin-Clarke, knows only too well. “Being a Black woman in the limelight can become really exhausting with brands constantly asking for comments on issues like Black Lives Matter”. She tells Stylist that last year, when the movement took off after Floyd’s death, “I found myself receiving daily emails about how it feels to be a Black woman in fitness, with brands asking me how they could do better to amplify Black voices or hire a more diverse roster.
“It’s not nice having to constantly share your pain and the pressures that you face – that is detrimental to your mental health!” The issue is that by ignoring those press requests, however, Skervin-Clarke feels that she’s “at risk of being overlooked by journalists or brands for future campaigns and potential work that could actually amplify (her) voice.”
For women like Osaka, having to choose between their own wellbeing and using their platform for an important cause must be torturous. It’s a far cry from the act of playing tennis.
Of course, you don’t have to be of a particular race, gender, class or have a specific skill to experience depression or any other kind of condition. Nelson argues that “when it comes to mental health, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Black women need to be treated the same as white women and everyone else. We need to be treated fairly because, in sport, it’s not about your colour, it’s about who’s best on the day, who trained the hardest, who comes out on top. Skin colour is irrelevant.”
Nelson’s business partner, 400m hurdler and PT, Kerry Dixon, believes that it’s high time for sporting governing bodies to play their role in supporting better mental health. “They need to put as much emphasis on mental health as they do physical performance,” she suggests. “So much effort is put into supporting athletes to be as strong and fast as possible, which means that there’s always access to physios, therapists and dieticians but the same can’t be said of mental health.”
Fabunmi-Alade’s stance on the treatment Osaka has received since stepping down from the French tournament speaks more directly to the core of the issue at play. “There aren’t enough words to fully dissect the impact that Osaka’s Blackness has had on the way she’s been treated,” she says. “‘Racism strikes again’ – and money and fame don’t save you from it. Statistically, Black women aren’t believed as much when suffering from health problems and I’m guessing that includes mental health too.” Research from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that Black people living in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental illness than any other ethnicity, while over 7 million Black people reported having a mental illness in the past year.
In the UK, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has partnered with the charity Changing Minds to build a mental health care pathway for elite British Players. A Wellbeing Group – which counts representatives from across the medical, clinical psychology, performance and safeguarding backgrounds – meets regularly to discuss the health and wellbeing needs of players and how best to support them to deal with the range of challenges they are exposed to throughout the tennis calendar.
The LTA aside, if the powers that be put more resources into better protecting athletes and providing them with the tools to protect their mental wellbeing, we’d see fewer sportspeople of all races, genders and ages struggle in the public eye. Osaka isn’t the first person to experience depression, exacerbated by incessant media coverage but it’s high time that she was one of the last.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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