Mum’s the word as Naomi Osaka turns up the volume on mental health

Interesting young woman, this Naomi Osaka.

She has become one of the leading voices in sports and now she doesn’t want to talk. At least not about tennis.

The finest female player on the planet, give or take an Ash Barty, will exercise her right to remain silent at the French Open, even if excusing herself from post-match interrogations results in a piling up of fines as she attempts to navigate her way to a fifth Grand Slam title and first on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Well okay. It’s not like Naomi can’t afford to zip her lips.

I mean, the Japanese world No. 2 hauled in $55.2 million during the past 12 months, more coin than any athlete on the distaff side of the playground. Ever. Of note, only $5.2 million of that $55.2 million windfall was earned on-court, which means Naomi’s face/name alone is worth $50 million.

I can’t think of any woman whose face/name holds such lofty value, unless it’s hanging on a wall in the Louvre.

Mona Lisa

Difference is, Mona Lisa sits and stares at people who stand and stare at her all day long, but she’s never had to stare down neighborhood bully Serena Williams in a Grand Slam tennis final. Naomi’s been there, done that.

She just doesn’t want to discuss it anymore, citing a mental health concern, even if the tab for snubbing news snoops post-match is $20,000 per missed natter.

Not surprisingly, there has been much jeering, tsk-tsking and figurative middle fingers raised in the peanut gallery of social media, with the Nameless Mob painting Osaka as a spoiled-rotten, young-punk diva who wraps herself in the robe of entitlement.

But let’s be very careful when discussing mental health issues.

The post-game to-and-fro between athletes and news snoops might seem a harmless bit of blah, blah, blah to us, but it might feel like badgering to an athlete who, just scant seconds earlier, had been vanquished and must now cop to the error of her/his way.

Everyone is expected to “man up.”

Except, just as there is no one-size-fits-all physical element to athletes, what goes on between the ears of one isn’t necessarily true for others. We call it grey matter, but there are more shades of grey than there are grains of sand in the Sahara.

It explains why someone like, say, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler would tell a jock journo to “f—k off” in the hot-wired atmosphere of a losing playoff changing room, while all those around him manage to keep a civil tongue in dissecting what has transpired, not just in one game but over the course of a seven-month crusade. Different strokes.

Naomi Osaka

I don’t think I’d be mistaken if I submit that, given their druthers, a wide swath of professional athletes would take a hard pass on post-match natters, especially in the rawness of a significant setback.

Tennis, in particular, places extremely uncomfortable and excessive expectations on players who fall short in a Grand Slam championship match. After spending anywhere from two to five hours on court, they are physically and emotionally spent, yet required to sit, stand and stew through a finishing ceremony that might drone on for half an hour. They must also deliver a concession speech and slap on a smiley face for the benefit of photographers, then trudge to a hidden room full of strangers to explain how it came to be that they were the second best of two players. All that when what they really want to do is retreat to a convenient sanctuary and let the tear ducts open a little (or a lot).

Who among us knows the emotional toll of such demands?

So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t join the Naomi Osaka-is-a-spoiled-brat chorus. I’m not inside her grey matter, so who am I, or any of us, to suggest a 23-year-old’s concern about “mental health” is a flimsy coverup to excuse her from an inconvenience?

Now it’s news snoops who will be inconvenienced. They won’t like it, but it could be they’ll have to get used to it, especially on the print side.

Athletes control their messaging like never before, and if they have something to say there’s no need to text the girls/boys on the beat. Osaka underscored that reality by using her social media platforms to say she won’t be saying much in Paris. It was her “scoop” so to speak, and it’s rapidly becoming the way of the sports world.

League and professional sports franchises, meanwhile, remain reliant on, and beholding to, networks that spend millions and billions of dollars on broadcast rights. But it’s a two-edged sword. It buys radio/TV outlets pearls of wisdom (or not) from microphone-friendly jocks like Roger Federer and Brooke Henderson, but it also buys them the monosyllabic mumblings of Bill Belichick and the curt crankiness of John Tortorella.

What’s worse, Naomi Osaka not talking or Torts talking?

Anyway, mum’s the word for Osaka in Paris, and I’d like to think the focus of her position should be on mental health, because the shifting tides of the jock-jock journo dynamic isn’t an everybody issue. Mental health is.

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