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 I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”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.
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.