When Naomi Osaka, one of the world’s top tennis stars and the world’s top-paid woman in competitive athletics, posted on social media that she would no longer participate in mandated post-match press conferences, she wasn’t just having a lady boss moment, she was also taking a stand for her mental health. In her May 26 announcement on Twitter, Osaka wrote that if organizers continue to say, “‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’” while ignoring the mental health of athletes, “then I just gotta laugh.”
Tournament organizers responded to her media boycott with a $15,000 fine, which Osaka answered by requesting that said fines be donated to charities that specialize in treating mental health. Instead of backing off, organizers upped the ante by threatening to expel her from the tournament.
On Monday, Osaka took that bluff in stride, decided to prioritize her mental health, and withdrew from the tournament altogether. It was a decisive defeat for the French Open, which days earlier had attempted to mock Osaka with a now-deleted tweet showcasing four tennis players engaging with reporters and the caption, “They understood the assignment.”
Bypassing the press once again, Osaka released a statement on social media that acknowledged the unintended drama of her initial announcement and moved on to say that “the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
Osaka’s statement continued that she “would never trivialize mental health” and included the disclosure that she had “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018,” which she “had a really hard time coping with,” even though it showcased her victory over the tennis star Serena Williams.
Advocating for Your Well-Being
In one gentle, though firm, swoop, the 23-year-old tennis star of Japanese and Black heritage took a stand for her well-being on the final day of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. She also brought attention to an oft-ignored issue—that public speaking is often cited as one of the top fears that people with social anxiety experience in the United States.
Though it is unclear how many adults in the U.S. fear public speaking—a 2001 Gallup Poll survey stated 40%, while Chapman University’s 2018 survey of fears said 26.2%—it is known that exposing people to trauma repeatedly can have long-ranging, negative consequences on one’s health.
In a study on the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cornell and Stanford researchers found that exposure to trauma can induce future mental health problems. Meanwhile, a 2020 study from Journal of Anxiety Disorders revealed that trauma can “involve not only threat to life but also social threat” and that participants in its study “with social anxiety disorder developed PTSD in response to social trauma.”
Without pathologizing Osaka, it is fair to trust her disclosure about experiencing depression in relation to forced media interviews and to applaud her decision to protect her peace of mind by withdrawing from the French Open. It must also be noted that her depression is no one’s business, nor should she have been forced to contort herself into pretzels to accommodate a group of older white men and their demands.
Respect the Health of Black and Asian Women
Osaka has received some blowback for her decision, including a racist screed in The Australian which described her as “uppity,” “petulant,” and a “princess” for protecting her well-being. This bush-league variety of uninformed criticism includes false comparisons between Osaka’s decision to engage in paid ad campaigns on her own time—where her comfort and security are prioritized and protected—instead of jumping into media junkets where she is pelted with questions that make her uncomfortable immediately following a match.
Despite the obnoxious rabble, Osaka has received a wellspring of online support for her decision from numerous fans and public figures, including Golden State Warriors basketball star Stephen Curry, Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Seattle Seahawks football star Russell Wilson, and news commentator Keith Olbermann.
In a multi-tweet thread, Olbermann noted that sexism was also at play in the tournament’s reaction to Osaka. In his tweets, he pointed out that baseball star Steve Carlton was never threatened with fines or suspension for refusing to speak with the media. Olbermann continued that George Hendrick didn’t speak, that football star Marshawn Lynch still refuses to, and “Bill Belichick literally gives lip service. But a woman? DESTROY HER!”
In her own sign of support, tennis great Serena Williams signaled that she’d had problems with the French Open in the past—this includes the tournament’s 2018 ban on her specially designed catsuit, which she wore to help prevent blood clots following her near-death experience with childbirth. Rather than respect Williams’ health, the organization stuck to its elitist roots in a move that Vox media described as the ongoing sexist and racist objectification of Williams’ body.
While speaking to reporters after winning a match on Monday, Williams observed that she and Osaka are different people and that Osaka has to “handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can.” It was the only relevant commentary for the entire day, coming from someone who has been in similar positions, who respects that people respond to trauma in their own ways, and that expecting people to behave like puppets is a disaster.
After all, Williams and her sister Venus boycotted the Indian Wells tennis tournament for 14 years after their father, Richard Williams, was subjected to racist taunts and they were accused of match-fixing in 2001. Though they were subjected to fines for their decision, they only reversed their stance after they felt safe with doing so. Osaka should be allowed to do the same.
One-Stop Fixes Do Not Work
On Memorial Day and in the lead-up to Juneteenth, Osaka showed the world that when it comes to her well-being, she will not perform for the pleasure of an organization’s arbitrary rules. Rather than kowtow to the demand that “this is the way things have always been done”—as French Open organizers have repeatedly bleated while insisting that the rules apply to everyone—Osaka has reminded us that one-stop fixes never work and should be amended to address the specific individuals who are engaging with them.
That is true for mandates about interviews as well as when one is dealing with HIV insurance guidelines or resolving one’s drug treatment. This is not to disavow universal guidelines in place—it’s a call for greater nuance when applying those strictures.
To quote Sarah Oltmans of the anti-poverty organization Robin Hood, “We have to design programs and policies that work for people,” instead of placing onerous conditions on their lives. This means acknowledging that people make choices that work for their own well-being, and working to create incentives that inspire people to participate rather than pushing them over the edge.
I nearly fell off the edge after I was diagnosed with HIV in 2015 because New York State’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) refused to accept my financial information so that I could receive help in paying for my $3,000-a-month antiretroviral medications. At that time, I was stuck in a loop wherein the state would request my financial statements every two weeks, even after I sent them.
This went on for three months, during which my weight dropped from 152 to 137 pounds. I am 5 feet 11 inches. What saved my life was meeting Angel Soto, a health advocate at the AIDS service organization GMHC, who resolved my issue after making a few phone calls over the course of 60 minutes.
Walking Around the Problem and Finding New Solutions
While I am eternally grateful to Soto, I should not have needed his help to receive the assistance that I deserved. ADAP is meant to help people living with HIV like me, and in that instance, it should have recognized that I needed help and was in danger of falling off the grid. Just as the French Open should have respected Osaka’s needs instead of entering a pissing contest with her or demanding that she jump through hoops to prove that she was struggling.
The thing about Osaka is that, unlike people who are living with HIV, she has the option to walk away. Nevertheless, I am grateful to her for showing us that, even though most of us can’t fly away on a jet, we can walk around and come at the problem from a different direction.
If you find yourself in a difficult position regarding your HIV health, I advise you to think like Naomi Osaka and seek out the help that best serves your situation. In my case, that meant realizing that I could not resolve my problems on my own. I needed an advocate by my side.
If you need help finding someone to advocate for your HIV health, I advise you to Google the name of your state and the words “HIV advocate” or “AIDS service organization.” If the people you speak with don’t have the answers you need, ask them to refer you to someone who can help and ask for advice. Keep asking for advice until you get closer to resolving your issue.
As with dealing with mental health, there is no singular way to solve one’s HIV needs. But one thing is for sure: Anyone who tries to get into a pissing contest with you about your health is not on your side. If you find yourself in a situation where the person who should be helping you refuses to do their job, think of Naomi Osaka, walk away, and work with someone else.