Money isn’t penicillin, an anti-depressant or a cure-all, so even filthy-rich pro athletes can be laid low by mental health challenges

It has been less than a week since Naomi Osaka took her tennis balls and went home, leaving French Open officials to tip-toe through a puddle of piddle that is of their own making.

The priggish potentates, in concert with their ilk from the other Grand Slam tournaments, had attempted bully tactics in a bid to bring the world No. 2 to heel like an obedient Bichon Frise, but their fines, their threats of disqualification and their dire warnings of additional sanctions failed to sway Osaka into believing post-match natters with news snoops outranked concerns about her mental health.

Thus, rather than play the part of lap dog, the 23-year-old champion chomped into the upper crust of tennis by withdrawing from one of the two Grand Slam venues she has yet to conquer.

In putting Roland Garros, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and a coterie of pompous asses in her rear-view mirror, Osaka doubled down on the pre-tournament reasoning for her preference to skip out on post-match interrogations by the media horde, some of whom wouldn’t know a foot fault from foie gras.

“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote. “Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.

“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”

Some among the rabble didn’t buy what Osaka was selling. Still don’t. They see her as a spoiled rich kid who melts into a pool of tears at the smallest inconvenience on the avenue of entitlement.

Well, part of that is true. She’s a rich kid.

According to Forbes, Osaka collected $5 million in on-court earnings in the past 12 months, and another $55 million from companies using her name and face to peddle product. So it’s not like she’ll be sitting on an L.A. street corner with a begging cap at her feet anytime soon.

That, however, doesn’t exempt her from falling prey to the same demons as us mere mortals.

Naomi Oska

Many seem to believe the filthy rich are immune to the challenges of life, including what goes on between the ears. It’s like, “Poor baby. If she feels the walls closing in, she can hop on her private jet and retreat to the $7 million Beverly Hills mansion she bought from Nick Jonas. How can anyone living in the lap of luxury whine about life? Suck it up, girl!”

Except it’s money, not penicillin or an anti-depressant. No medic has ever stuck a stethoscope on a jock’s bankroll and said, “Take two trips to an ATM and see me in the morning.” No head doctor has ever prescribed great gobs of greenbacks as a cure-all for anxiety.

To posit that professional athletes are free and clear of life’s scatter-shot tendencies is also to believe the characters on Sesame Street are mobsters. (Hey, Oscar might be a Grouch, but I doubt he’s using Miss Piggy and Kermit as drug mules.)

I don’t know if Naomi Osaka’s soul-baring was a cry for help, but it certainly was a call for understanding.

The same could be said for Mark Scheifele, the Winnipeg Jets forward who’s been told to stand down for four games after turning Jake Evans of the Montreal Canadiens into a bug on a windshield in a recent National Hockey League playoff skirmish.

Scheifele refused to cop to any wrong-doing, but he accepted criticism thrust has way, also his punishment, even if he believes it to be excessive. What he didn’t accept was the “hate” hurled toward his parents, as if they’d raised the the second coming of Charles Manson. His younger sister and brother apparently took hits as well, and, as he addressed news snoops, we didn’t have to guess if the abuse wounded him. We could hear it in his voice as he checked his emotions while talking about his “salt of the earth” parents, and we could see it in his eyes as they began to dampen.

My immediate thought: The implications of his absence on the Jets lineup be damned. His real-life issue was the most significant takeaway from his session with jock journos.

No doubt many among the rabble will tell Scheifele to “suck it up,” as they did Osaka, but anyone dealing with a mental health challenge, filthy-rich pro athletes included, can tell you that isn’t what they need. They need an ear—your ear—because listening leads to dialogue and dialogue leads to insight and empathy, even if you can’t fully understand their demon.

Trust me, I know. I’ve been to the dark side. I’ve been crippled by anxiety, I’ve passed out from panic attacks, I’ve battled with depression, and I wrestled with gender/sexual identity most of my life. I’ve also suffered so many concussions that there are times when I can’t walk a straight line, and believe me when I tell you that no prim and proper old lady wants to be seen staggering about the streets like a sailor on shore leave.

Bottom line: We need to stop looking at pro athletes as super-human. They’re super athletes, yes, but they experience every-day, human hurt just like the rest of us, and that includes pain between the ears.

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.

%d bloggers like this: