RICHARD BULLICK: Osaka has been badly advised by her own people

RICHARD BULLICK: Osaka has been badly advised by her own people
Richard Bullick

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Richard Bullick

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There were four first-time semi-finalists in the women’s singles at this week’s French Open after a host of more established stars had fallen earlier in the tournament.

The casualties along the way included the veteran Serena Williams, who has now gone nearly five years without adding to her astonishing tally of Grand Slam singles titles.

Another notable absentee from the business end of this tournament has been Naomi Osaka, the Japanese player ranked No 2 in the world, whose withdrawal has sparked such debate.

Arriving at Roland Garros with the stated intention not to take part in the obligatory press conferences set Osaka on a very public collision course with the tennis authorities.

The French Open organisers responded by making clear that fines would be issued for breaching contractual commitments and neither side showed willingness to back down.

So, Osaka kept her threat to boycott, citing concerns for the effect facing the media has on her mental health, and the corresponding penalties were duly applied as a result.

The stand-off generated a huge furore, quite quickly followed by Osaka pulling out of the tournament and indicating that she would be taking some time away from the sport.

At that stage, the 23-year-old, who has won four Grand Slam titles to date, indicated that she has been suffering from prolonged bouts of depression from 2018.

Osaka’s controversial stance coming into the tournament had divided opinion and the responses of fellow players, inevitably asked for their views, were particularly interesting.

Rather than just showing solidarity with Osaka, or using the opportunity to push back against media demands on them, most were perhaps surprisingly positive about these duties.

At the very least there was an acknowledgement that the media have an important part to play in promoting the sport and few players complained of negative experiences personally.

Even the competing men and women who expressed empathy towards the Japanese player and concern for her well-being stopped short of siding with the stance that she had taken.

Some might have expected self-serving journalists to express self-righteous indignation about Osaka for obvious reasons and players blindly back her, but it was far more nuanced.

The simplistic argument against Osaka’s actions is that sport is tough but those involved knew the rules of engagement, signed up to the terms and so should just get on with it.

One reason we all love sport is because it is so raw and real, with people putting everything on the line in pursuit of their dreams and publicly laying bare every emotion in the arena.

Then having to front up in the aftermath of defeat, especially if in an important match, or when unexpected, or in difficult circumstances, must be brutally tough to take.

Elite sportspeople are exceptionally competitive characters who have invested so much to get to where they are and naturally hate losing, so having to talk about it too can’t be easy.

On other occasions, even victories can be overshadowed by reporters persisting in trying to ask about topical controversies or personal stuff which players feel should be off-limits.

As someone who has worked in sports journalism for the best part of three decades, this columnist can’t always defend the approach and actions of some media colleagues.

Journalists can certainly behave badly, by adopting unreasonable lines of questioning, pursuing particular agendas, even vendettas, being sensational or quoting out of context.

It is embarrassing to see media mobs behaving like packs of wolves, engaging in bear-baiting and having no regard for the fact we are dealing with real human beings.

While asking hard questions can come with the territory, there is no excuse for displaying a real lack of sensitivity in dealing with fellow human beings at times of heightened emotions.

However, most tennis players seemed to accept that engaging with the media is at least a necessary evil and that their fame and fortune is inextricably linked to their sport’s profile.

Of course, sportspeople can communicate directly with fans now via their own well-followed platforms but anyone arguing that social media isn’t a cesspit is clearly delusional.

The Osaka saga certainly wasn’t well handled in the first instance, with megaphone diplomacy and absolutist positions leaving little wriggle-room for resolving issues.

Stung by the player’s public pronouncements, the tennis authorities reached for the nuclear option by threatening expulsion from the tournament and roping in other Grand Slams.

Their motivation may have been to head off any potential tsunami of players trying to opt out, a bit like the EU’s tough line with the UK on Brexit to deter other nations thinking of leaving.

There was some frustration that the term ‘mental health’, which has become such a focus of the modern world, was being bandied about by Osaka as a rather cynical card in a game.

A stand-off developed and, after a rather clunky attempted defence of Osaka’s stance by a family member backfired, the player pulled out of the tournament after the first round.

Only then did Naomi’s more detailed explanation of her psychological condition provide more clarity and context, which naturally led to a greater degree of sympathy for the player.

Even though we have become more mature about mental health, sportspeople understandably don’t like to show ‘weakness’ so it wasn’t easy for Osaka to talk about.

Going into details about such personal matters must have been distressing but she had already drawn attention to herself by taking such a high-stakes stance in the first place.

Players and administrators suggested some flexibility and compassion would have been shown had this been dealt with differently and not in apparent defiance of the regulations.

The whole affair sparked plenty of media debate, not only on sports shows but current affairs and other topical programmes, with a mix of expert and public opinion being reflected.

Past players, psychologists, and mental health campaigners all had their say with one claiming that ‘the requirement of the job doesn’t justify witch-hunts, abuse or bullying’.

It was observed that, whatever the line ok work, ‘anyone can be ill’ in which case there should be support provided, time taken off if needed and modified duties considered.

Osaka has stepped away from the sport temporarily, but it remains to be seen what happens upon her return in balancing contractual commitments and her own well-being.

In team sports, some players are better equipped than others to be put forward for media duties so that offers flexibility, but it is different for competitors in individual sports.

The likes of former Ireland rugby prop John Hayes, Armagh gaelic cult figure Francie Bellew and decorated Dublin skipper Stephen Cluxton have all been reticent to do media interviews.

Even some captains can be better than others, with Ireland hockey skipper Katie Mullan one of the most measured speakers, while some show significant improvement over time.

Northern Ireland netball captain Caroline O’Hanlon and Armagh ladies gaelic skipper Kelly Mallon have warmed to the task and now represent their teams in impressive fashion.

It may come more naturally to others such as Mallon’s predecessor Caoimhe Morgan or her cousin Leah McGoldrick but Kelly has stepped out of her comfort zone and stepped up.

Inevitably, players and even captains, will lose their cool at times and duck out occasionally or perhaps say intemperate things and they deserve to be cut some slack if generally good.

It’s interesting to see captains having to give half-time interviews on Sky Sports in netball’s British SuperLeague and post-match chats are routine in rugby’s flagship Six Nations.

Soccer and gaelic go more for post-match manager interviews and we see some explosive performances, enigmatic comments, and criticism of officials which can attract sanctions.

What are known as ‘mixed-zones’ where players have to walk past waiting reporters behind barriers after big games in soccer or rugby for example have become fairly standard.

If someone stops there can be a real feeding frenzy and some players have reputations for being more accommodating than others.  A particular hat-tip personally to Tommy Bowe.

Whatever about his image, acting skipper Matt Dawson obliged this Irish journalist after leading England to defeat at Lansdowne Road in 2001 when going for the Grand Slam.

Keith Gillespie came out to talk on the back of scoring a costly own goal for Northern Ireland in a qualifier many years ago, so clearly these things stick in the memory of reporters.

David Wallace was the only player to talk to the travelling press pack after Ireland’s exit from the ill-fated 2007 Rugby World Cup following the defeat to Argentina at the Parc des Princes.

That was the tournament at which TV3’s Sinead Kissane asked Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan pitch-side whether he was considering resigning after his team’s poor showing.

Whether she was right to do so divided public opinion and likewise the BBC’s Sonja McLaughlan got flak for grilling Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell during this year’s Six Nations.

So, it’s interesting as to whose side the public are on when it comes to tough questioning and, on the other hand, a lot of setpiece press conferences can be quite tedious.

Some sports editors love quotes much more than analysis or a more detailed account of the action but, if the utterances are a bit bland, are the audience particularly interested?

Whether with Mickey Harte refusing to talk to RTE or Jim McGuinness with Declan Bogue, there have been boycotts of particular journalists or organisations for various reasons.

In gaelic games, the card is sometimes played that amateurs aren’t obliged to do interviews, and far too many managers deploy media bans ahead of big games out of pure paranoia.

Unsurprisingly, long-serving sportspeople can get a bit weary and cynical about media appearances so may tend to dodge them except when being paid to promote something.

This writer was flown to Manchester in 2004 by Adidas for one such commercial gig to interview Jonny Wilkinson and Steven Gerrard but both, in fairness, were very engaging.

Some individuals actually cultivate the media and one recalls being bombarded by future Winter Olympics snowboarder Aimee Fuller for publicity when she was coming through.

An incredibly dynamic and ambitious individual, the Holywood woman has gone on to a great career backed by a huge social media following and lucrative sponsorship deals.

While those in team sports are relatively shielded, individual athletes often find themselves having to front up for interviews live on television straight after competing.

This writer recalls seeing Portaferry’s finest Ciara Mageean being sick in a waste-bin after running in the then Odyssey Arena back when it hosted top-class athletics events years ago.

Television viewers have since become accustomed to the same ritual but because Mageean is so wonderfully real, the country will run every stride with her in spirit at the Olympics.

One thinks of Carl Frampton’s hugely emotional but gracious interview in the ring straight after his final fight, and it’s tough in boxing as losing is such a big thing psychologically.

There have been embarrassing rants before by Belfast amateur Michaela Walsh, who has just qualified for the Olympics, about refereeing decisions, and others have let loose too.

Trash-talking boxers like Tyson Fury and David Haye have spouted objectionable views while by contrast polite Katie Taylor has been branded boring, which is quite unfair.

Because of his high-profile, golfer Rory McIlroy’s every utterance is picked up upon and he often ends up getting flak for arguably being too open and honest in his press conferences.

The most mind-boggling interviews of all are those done by Stephen Watson or others on the grid at big motorcycling events like the North West 200 minutes before races start.

But back to Osaka, and one suggestion has been that individual sportspeople could possibly be represented in some media sessions by a member of their entourage such as a coach.

That might be an acceptable compromise in some situations if there were good reasons why the athlete themselves couldn’t appear, but it’s hard to beat hearing from the horse’s mouth.

Professional sportspeople get a lot of media training now which can help ease anxiety about facing the media and leave them less prone to being tripped up or saying the wrong thing.

However, we want authenticity too in interviews rather than colourless clones, and likewise the presence of so many media managers now can prove counter-productive.

In the good old days, when this writer was starting off and before then, access was easier and there were closer relationships between top sportspeople and those reporting on them.

Likewise, part of the reason Ciara Mageean and rugby’s Leah McGoldrick remain two of my favourite sportspeople is the impression made in interviews when they were still schoolgirls.

Both had become newsworthy due to their early exploits in sport and, although young, each chatted away well with refreshing freedom rather than worrying about what they ‘should’ say.

In the sport of women’s tennis, plenty of players reach the world stage as teenagers and dealing with new-found fame can be exceptionally challenging for the individuals involved.

The fact Osaka is still experiencing problems at the age of 23 and having been around the top for a while now has given food for thought and player welfare must be taken seriously.

The sport has responsibilities, but it is hard not to conclude that Osaka has been badly advised by her own people in how she handled matters coming into the French Open.

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