When I heard that tennis player Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open rather than participate in the required post-match press conferences, my first thought was that I wish I could introduce her to the fictional Davis. Or the nonfictional Marshawn Lynch, a running back for the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 who answered every question posed to him at Super Bowl Media Day with the explanation, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
But then I realized my solution may have satisfied me, the tennis fan; but it wouldn’t have satisfied her, the young woman.
Osaka is the daughter of a Hatian father and Japanese mother. As a young woman of color, she carries a burden to use her platform in a way that the fictional young Mr. Laloosh did not.
For much of the past century, athletes have been about the only African-Americans able to get the attention of white America. The grace and dignity of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson would give way to the more strident voices of Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown as our nation slowly turned toward a greater equality.
Each step along the way, sports were ahead of the rest of society. In tennis, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe both won championships held at clubs where neither would have been eligible for membership.
In explaining her decision to withdraw from the French Open, Osaka said she gets huge waves of anxiety each time she has to address the media. It may seem strange that someone could keep their cool on center court with 20,000 fans watching and pressure riding on every stroke, then wither in front of 20 reporters. But it really isn’t that unusual. Fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, is a common form of stress, sometimes leading to panic.
But, it is a fear that Osaka must learn to overcome. It is not unreasonable for professional sports leagues or tournaments to require athletes to help promote the sport by dealing with the media. But that doesn't mean they are required to answer every question or wade into every debate.
Osaka often wears facemasks while entering or leaving the tennis court bearing the names of black Americans who were killed at the hands of police. She clearly has a message she wants to deliver.
My hope is that she will seek the coaching needed to be able to not only participate in, but take ownership of future press conferences. That means learning how to identify troublesome questions and having the confidence to simply move on to the next one. And it means only straying from tennis questions when she wants to. Public speaking is a learned skill, just like an overhead smash or a backhand volley. And, we get better with practice.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com
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There’s a great scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Crash Davis, the veteran catcher, teaches hotshot pitching prospect Nuke Laloosh how to talk to the media: “We’ve got to play ‘em one game at a time.” “I’m just happy to be here, and hope I can help the ballclub.” “I just want to give it my best shot. And, the good Lord willing, things will work out.” As a former sportswriter, I thought director Ron Shelton gave it 110 percent in capturing the typical locker room exchanges. Players and coaches lean on cliches because they’re safe, and there’s one available for every situation.
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