* Written by Rohit Krishna
The equation between star athletes and the media has always been a complex one. However, in an era where the media is omnipresent and highly intrusive, professional athletes are slowly pushing for changes in the system, even as traditional media risks losing its relevance. By virtue of competing in an individual sport, Tennis stars have to create their brand and bear the brunt of the media in an individual capacity, as they have no team legacy, nationality, or a collective brand to protect them. Recently, Naomi Osaka refused to speak to the media citing mental health reasons and was fined $15000 for not fulfilling her obligations under the Grand Slam codes. While she withdrew from the tournament, Osaka’s incident begs the question of what exactly an athlete owes to the media. By using the Osaka incident as a focal point, this piece will briefly look at the declining quality of media interactions with tennis stars despite the vital role played by the media, the possible shift in power dynamics to star athletes and the need for tennis authorities to revisit the current obligations in order to mend their relationship with their most significant revenue generators, the athletes.
Media’s role in sport and athlete obligations
At the onset, there is no denying that the media tremendously benefits a sport, and with tennis, this is no different. It helps athletes build their brand, fetches them multi-million endorsement deals, brings in sponsors, and acts as a bridge of communication between athletes and their fans, growing the sport to newer audiences. In addition, they help fans relate to an athlete’s off-court persona and take a deeper look into their psyche after tough losses or historical moments.
Osaka was fined under Article III-H of the Grand Slam Regulations, which requires any player who is not ‘injured or physically unable to appear to be present for a post-match media conference at the conclusion of the match, within thirty minutes. This is in addition to the players in the main draw participating in a pre-event press conference. Failure to meet such obligations leads to a fine of $20000 and suspensions from Grand Slams and other tournaments upon repeat violations. While these obligations do appear onerous, it is pertinent to note that athletes are paid substantial amounts in the form of price money and sign multi-million sponsorship deals, as Osaka took home $37.4 million in 2019 and signed with Nike and Luis Vuitton. Tournaments secure such huge investments from broadcasters and sponsors for the successful functioning of the tour, and the sponsors expect quality fan engagement from the athletes. With this engagement and the media’s rapidly declining quality of press conferences, Osaka’s problems lie. Post tough losses, tennis stars are bombarded with repetitive, interrogative and non-descript questions. Female stars often face sexist and unrelated personal questions that shift the focus from their athletic ability, as was the case with Maria Sharapova in 2004 and Genie Bouchard in 2013 at Wimbledon. When it comes to scrutinizing an athlete’s on-court outbursts, the media does not question a male athlete’s disrespectful actions with the same rigour as it does of a female star’s. Serena William’s 2018 US open conference and the subsequent racist cartoons by the Australian media serves as the perfect example.
Osaka said she had been suffering from bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open. In tears, she walked out of her 2019 Wimbledon post-match conference and rightfully wanted to protect her mental health from the media’s negativity during the French Open. Rather than engaging with her to reach a workable compromise, not only did the French open fine her USD$15000, the Grand Slam heads threatened to suspend her from all slams if she did not meet her obligations. At a time when the men’s game is making significantly more money than the women’s game and when women’s tennis is struggling to find ‘star athletes’ to transcend the sport and engage fans and sponsors, this decision by the authorities benefitted no one. Rather than leveraging the presence of the highest-paid female athlete in the world, the backlash that Osaka received from the media only fuelled her point. Tennis has extreme media obligations that no other sport like football, rugby or athletics, seem to have. Even an Olympic medal winner is not forced to speak to the media, and this was reaffirmed by the International Olympic Committee, as they emphasised that Osaka and other athletes will not be penalised for not participating in press conferences. So when the Olympics can make room, why can’t tennis? While Osaka did get the support of her peers for her decision, many of them also stressed that media commitments are part of the job and needed to be done, even if they were hard. These athletes and many others seem to miss that not everyone handles the pressures and negativity of the media in the same way. This precisely highlights the need for more dialogue between the authorities and the athlete regarding mental wellbeing on the tour.
The Shift in Power dynamics
The Osaka incident also highlighted a rapidly shifting balance of power in sport and how traditional media could lose its relevance. With a massive line of sponsors and as one of the most marketable athletes who advocates for racial equality and conversations on mental health, Osaka and other star athletes have tremendous power to transform the game, shape brands and influence fans. Recently, Ronaldo’s rejection of a strategically placed Coca-Cola bottle at the Euro 2020 championships highlighted how athletes are willing to challenge media/marketing deals struck by organisers if they do not align with the athlete’s corporate image or beliefs or harm them in any manner. The sports establishments, like the Grand Slam authorities in Osaka’s case, are confronting a generation of star athletes with unique attitudes, huge social media following, a will to stand up for causes and not submit to structures rooted in archaic traditions. Athletes are no longer willing to put the media’s needs ahead of their trauma, as shown by basketball star Kyrie Irving, who was also fined twice this season for skipping his media obligations, echoing similar concerns for his mental wellbeing. The right to remain silent is part of the right to free speech. Yes, the freedom of the press is crucial to hold powerful athletes or coaches accountable, but this does not translate into an automatic right to interrogate stars after losses with personally intrusive questions or designed only to elicit emotional responses.
What can tennis authorities and the media do?
Firstly, Article III-H of the Grand Slam codes needs to be amended to include ‘mentally fit’, apart from ‘physically fit’ for an athlete to appear, as its absence displays a primitive understanding of wellbeing. The mandatory post-match conference should be given leeway of at least an hour after the match to let athletes process their emotions. Secondly, the authorities need to work collaboratively with the top tennis players to ensure that the rules are not applied in a ‘one size fits all manner’. While theoretically, the rules should be the same for everyone, the reality is that top players like Osaka, Williams, the big three in the men’s game etc., are interviewed far more regularly and conduct press conferences in high-pressure environments, while the rest do not. Given that they assume most of the media burden and provide much of the value, there need to be tailor-made programmes for them and possibly a separate media protocol for the top 10 players on both tours. These players should be allowed to opt-in and out of obligations, they are comfortable with. Further, an athlete should also have the option of receiving lesser prize money for lesser media obligations. Above all, with stars launching their own media companies and the currency of the press diminishing in this social media age where stars can directly reach their fans, traditional media needs to re-assess its methods to stay relevant. The fans would want nothing more than for their athletes to perform to their best ability, free of other pressures, which should be the organisers' priority.
Athletes and the media need each other in order to thrive, but authorities should recognise a social change is underway and revisit their current media obligations on athletes. Now, talent has all the power, and if more importance is given to the mental wellbeing of athletes, incidents like Naomi Osaka’s can easily be avoided.
*The author is a Law Scholar from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)
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 See Article-IIIH of
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