Athletes don't owe us anything

Naomi Osaka punched a giant hole in the myth that professional sports owes the public a quote or a press conference. Watching sports journalists double down on criticizing her is a telling moment.

What exactly are sports reporters for?

We have endless websites to transmit scores both in real time and after the fact. Most major pro and college sports in the U.S. have capitalized on the explosion of cable and streaming options by putting every game on TV, allowing you to see any contest you like in real time. We hear from athletes famous and not-so-famous ones on social media channels or on sites like the Players Tribune, raw and unfiltered.

When you break down the job of the journalist, a lot of it has been duplicated or co-opted in our media environment thanks to the internet. Observation, perspective from athletes, results of the games, play-by-play, analysis, pontificating what comes next—all things that are parts of the job, and all things that exist in lots of places online. We are witnessing the decline of professional sports journalism in a lot of different sectors, but by and large we are in a golden age for sports media itself. It is easy to find a contest or read about your favorite player or team thanks to a combination of expanded TV presence, fan voices, and self-publishing.

And so again I ask, what are sports reporters for? Naomi Osaka said she didn’t need them, and she wasn’t wrong. She caused a stir last week by saying she wasn’t going to participate in post-match press conferences at the French Open due to their impact on her mental health, and after tournament officials levied a heavy-handed $15,000 fine and suspension threat she withdrew rather than complying. Osaka was the tournament’s #2 seed. This was no small bit of news.

A lot of my time as a journalist was spent in sports, and perhaps if I was still doing that work I would find myself agreeing with some of the flat-out ludicrous takes this week about the situation. The arguments I keep seeing in the news this week, including some from people I call dear colleagues and friends, seem to boil down to some combination of the following:

  1. Professional sports rely on the news for publicity, and a player has an obligation to speak to the press for the good of the game.

  2. Speaking with the press is a tradition and players should respect it.

  3. Doing interviews is part of being a professional athlete, and if Osaka doesn’t want the burden of interviews she can find a new line of work.

Let’s talk about that first one. Do professional or college sports need the news? It’s arguable that these events and organizations need media exposure for sure, but I am using the term “media” and not “journalism” here with purpose. So much of media exposure is self-created by leagues and athletes in 2021 that it’s hard to see what niche the news itself fills. Sports leagues and teams have television contracts with stations, channels and networks that gives them built-in media exposure, and little about that work is journalistic. The best sports broadcasters always have found ways to at least show a veneer of independence and criticize a team during or after a contest, but make no mistake these people work for the team even if the contract is through a third party.

It’s not difficult to argue that the news helped build the major pro leagues and college sports here in the U.S., and indeed globally. But it’s important to see that isn’t unique to the news itself but rather an ongoing story of this newsletter—how monopolies created what we eventually called standards, ones that feel arbitrary and performative in the modern media economy. In the case of that news/sports relationship, we are talking about growth during a time when getting information was more difficult. Even in the ’80s when I was growing up, my local MLB teams only had about 40% of their games on television via some combination of local broadcast and national games of the week. NBA playoff games, including the Finals(!!!), often were on tape delay in the 1970s and early 1980s. Without the internet, the only way to know the dang score and latest standings was by watching TV news or picking up the newspaper.

What we’ve got now is every game on tv and players speaking directly to fans. Sports leagues and teams built their own websites in the late 1990s, and by the middle part of the 2000s they were building entire media operations with full-time reporters and broadcasters that cover the team alongside professional independent journalists. I suppose we could make the case that independent news coverage helps grow the game, but it is a blip compared to even 20 years ago and diminishing year over year. All you have to do is look at the sharp drop in local newspaper subscriptions to see the lack of influence. Local newspapers have been cutting professional sports coverage for more than a decade now. At a lot of places that have kept the beat in the face of savage newsroom cuts, it is no longer a dedicated role and reporters don’t travel with the team. Are sports suffering from the lack of exposure? Quite the opposite.

The second argument flows from the first. Yes, speaking to the press is a tradition, but it’s a tradition that athletes and teams participated in because it benefited them. It grew their sports back when exposure was more scarce, leagues were smaller, and athletes didn’t often have brands outside of their sporting accomplishments.

What the Osaka situation should do is cause us to rethink that assumption. Perhaps press conferences are tradition, but does that make them good or useful in 2021? Given all the ways athletes can speak to the public via the media, is it necessary to put an athlete on a stage or among a gaggle of reporters and force them to answer questions about their performance?

I’ll say the hard thing: postgame press conferences are almost always a waste of time. A room full of reporters assembled, all writing down the same quote to put into tens or hundreds of different stories that will be differentiated not by quotes but by the writer’s analysis, voice and imagination. Quotes in pressers often are plodding, perfunctory and lacking in insight. Reporter questions in these formats often are dull, beside-the-point, caustic, rude, or thinly veiled speeches masquerading as questions. Boring formats yield are answers that are predictably dull and boilerplate, as Bull Durham once famously noted.

No, the bread and butter for journalism has long been the interview, the one-on-one time between reporter and source. They are conversations rather than rapid-fire questionfests from different people, and they allow for reflection and follow-up. But here’s the thing: interviews are way, way more difficult than transcribing quotes in a press conference. They require time and listening, yes, but they also require building a relationship and trust with the source. They also require a list of thoughtful questions and topics. That is all on the reporter.

The best sports reporters I’ve known have spent decades building relationships with athletes. Naomi Osaka isn’t even calling sports journalism bad here, though a lot of it is quite bad. She’s just saying the press conference format with a barrage of bad questions right after the game is bad.

She’s correct.

Focusing on relationships means investing in your journalists with resources that let them stay on the beat for a long time, travel with the team, and so forth. This method for information gathering is expensive, not cheap and easy like an all-in-one gathering that doesn’t even require a sports reporter to be in the same room. In today’s time of cheap content, you definitely can cover the French Open from your living room in the U.S. You can report scores and watch press conferences live on TV or by streaming; congratulations, you’ve just invented a sports startup. There is little about the work of game reporting that can’t be remote. You can probably see the self-interest for news organizations in upholding a tradition like a presser.

Finally, what about the last point, that this is part of the job? Tim Dahlberg argued as much in his latest AP column:

Some of the questions may be repetitive. Some may even be a bit negative, though for the most part those in the tennis media tend to treat top players with kid gloves. Regardless, it’s part of her job to answer them.

That’s not going to change, even with Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open after refusing to appear at the news conferences every other top player accepts as part of the job.

Only now she’ll have even more questions to answer.

There’s something vaguely threatening about this line of thinking. Imagine being part of the industry whose job it is to ask questions and, when told that the way you do your job puts someone’s mental health at risk, your answer is it’s only going to get worse.

But there’s a bigger problem with this line of thinking, and that’s the assumption that it’s Osaka’s job. Her job is to play professional tennis and win as much as possible. There is nothing about that role that requires speaking to the press. In this case, the press covers it because readers want to read more, but that isn’t Osaka’s problem. Given that sort of framing, the press needs Osaka and more generally access to athletes to give their stories more life. The games won’t suffer a bit if the press isn’t there, but the press very much needs more and better content for its own bottom line. Now that Osaka was forced to withdraw thanks to stubborn tournament officials and sports journalists, the French Open itself is diminished with its second-rated player gone.

It is cynical to frame the press requirement as Osaka’s obligation when it’s arguable she doesn’t benefit a bit from press exposure. She has loads of other options when it comes to free media, and in those other spaces she can control the format in ways that benefit her. LeBron James has 86 million followers on Instagram and 49 million on Twitter. You think he’s suffering from a lack of ability to get quotes and observations out into the public? You can go on down the line. Athletes big and small have followings and the ability to grow their brand online. Tournaments and teams are threatened when power re-centers to the athletes who make them all rich, but sports journalism itself is threatened as well when someone like Osaka can just talk directly over their heads

No, the only beneficiaries in a must-talk rule are news organizations. This is entirely about power and money, and they don’t want Osaka to have control of that.

At the same time, there is something a bit twisted about invoking “part of their job” in this situation. This is language we usually reserve for talking about public officials, how it is their duty to be accountable to the public because of their positions. This is the price of power accrued by the consent of the governed, because the decisions our representatives make in our name have impacts on all of us. Naomi Osaka isn’t a political leader. She’s great at tennis and she’s wealthy because of it, but her fame is the result of public interest. That doesn’t mean her work is in the public interest similar to that of a powerful political or business leader. It waters down the accountability role of the press to the point of absurdity when we suggest that an elite tennis player has to answer for how they played.

So it comes down to this. Naomi Osaka, or any athlete, doesn’t owe us a damn thing. They want to play, and they can do that with or without annoying questions. Notice that nobody is trying to argue this week that doing press conferences somehow make Osaka better at tennis. This is something that isn’t integral to the whole point of having a French Open, and so if we are talking about something tertiary to the games you better have some tangible evidence that any of this extra stuff with the press somehow benefits Osaka or grows the game of tennis. I’m skeptical.

I look at this situation as an athlete practicing self-care, and while I’m heartened to see athletes and even some journalism folks coming out in support of her position, the responses from people who are saying the system is just fine should give us pause. Who is all of this for, this complicated apparatus of media availability and professional obligation? If the point is the games and the tournaments, how does talking to the press register as being necessary? And finally, what can we say about the public if they honestly think they own a piece of the athlete’s time just because an athlete wants to be the best at what they do?

Depression among athletes is a third rail in the U.S. right now, and Osaka deserves our praise for shining a light on it. When we go straight to obligations and traditions when someone tells us they are suffering, this should make us all reflect on the truth she’s trying to share. The French Open failed Osaka by living by the letter of an unnecessary law. The news media failed and will continue to fail if it cannot be self-critical about whether these rules are self-serving and require some rethinking.

But this isn’t just about Osaka. She’s just the spark that lit the powder keg. The next task should be about making space for the news in ways that benefits everyone, with primary emphasis on the athlete experience. We watch and pay attention because their feats bring us joy. If we are adding things that cause depression and degrade performance, that is an argument against those things.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.