Naomi Osaka says 'it's OK to not be OK'; standing up for mental health 'all worth it'
Women's tennis star Naomi Osaka opened up about her shocking decision to withdraw from the French Open last month to preserve her mental health, clarifying the stance she took and saying her sport is in need of a face-lift to better accommodate athletes.
"Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions," Osaka wrote in a Time Magazine article titled, "It's O.K. to not be O.K." The 23-year-old is preparing to compete in the Tokyo Olympics later this month.
Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros after she was fined $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory — and threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with the possibility of disqualification or suspension if she continued to avoid the media. She said she experienced anxiety before speaking to the media and revealed she suffered bouts of depression.
"I communicated that I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health," she wrote. "I stand by that. Athletes are humans. Tennis is our privileged profession, and of course there are commitments off the court that coincide. But I can’t imagine another profession where a consistent attendance record (I have missed one press conference in my seven years on tour) would be so harshly scrutinized.
"I have numerous suggestions to offer the tennis hierarchy, but my No. 1 suggestion would be to allow a small number of 'sick days' per year where you are excused from your press commitments without having to disclose your personal reasons. I believe this would bring sport in line with the rest of society."
Osaka clarified that she never meant to upset the media and that the format of news conferences was what she was against, not the press as a whole.
"The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better," she wrote.
Osaka said she heard from a plethora of people who struggle with their mental health who felt inspired by her and noted she has ironically been thrust in the main spotlight as an athlete voice for mental health — a discomforting yet necessary mantle.
"Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life," Osaka wrote. "If that’s true, then it was all worth it.
"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. 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."
Contributing: The Associated Press