She didn't anticipate that skipping one press conference in seven years would cause a tennis scandal. But Naomi Osaka opting out of being grilled by reporters as an act of mental health self-care drew such harsh sanctions and so much vitriol that the star athlete withdrew from the French Open altogether. She skipped Wimbledon for good measure, too, opting instead to recharge and spend time with loved ones ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Amid prepping to hit the court again in her homeland, Osaka penned a powerful essay for TIME magazine detailing the wisdom she's gleaned from the unexpected events of the previous few weeks. Chief among them is that "it's O.K. to not be O.K."
"It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does," the tennis star wrote. "The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that." Osaka noted she also learned you can't please everyone, pointing to the journalists and tournament officials who berated her for skipping the press conferences they consider sacred to the sport. But she also thanked her legions of supporters, including Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle.
One of Osaka's most insightful points is that athletes are subject to rules and scrutiny that wouldn't fly with HR in any other line of work, where "you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual." She noted that most people don't have to divulge their most personal health details to an employer to get time off. "In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone," Osaka wrote. "I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again."
Her words bring to mind Brianna McNeal's heartbreaking suspension. Last week, the champion hurdler disclosed that she was recovering from an abortion when she missed a doping test in January 2020. McNeal told the New York Times she was in bed and didn't hear the official knock on her front door. But what actually sidelined her was a clerical error: McNeal changed the date of her abortion on a doctor's note, thinking the office got it wrong. Doping officials reviewed her medical records and found McNeal had mixed up the dates. So they slapped her with a five-year suspension for "tampering" with the results of a drug test.
McNeal felt she had to go public to make it clear she hadn't done anything like tampering with a urine sample. "Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized, and to me it is unfair,” McNeal told the Times. “I just don’t believe that this warranted a suspension at all, much less a five-year suspension, for just a technicality, an honest mistake during a very emotional time."
There's also the sad news that the fastest woman in America, Sha’Carri Richardson, will miss the Tokyo Olympics thanks to a positive drug test result for marijuana. The sprinter, who won the 100-meter race at the U.S. trials, admitted she used cannabis to cope with news of the death of her biological mother. Richardson was in Oregon, where weed is legal, for the U.S. trials when a reporter blindsided her with the news, just days before the biggest race of her career. In response to the crushing suspension, Richardson simply tweeted, "I am human."
Osaka was a huge star before she angered the sports establishment by practicing self-care. Her essay is a thoughtful and powerful rebuke to an archaic, unfair system that seems to consistently disenfranchise Black female athletes. Yet she admitted she's an introvert and that using her platform comes at the cost of great anxiety. "I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers," Osaka wrote, adding: "Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it."
The 23-year-old tennis legend also had words of comfort and encouragement: "I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel," she wrote.