When shy and sensitive tennis superstar Naomi Osaka walked out of the French Open last week after refusing to handle media questions, she posed an interesting question for the media to ponder. Her sudden withdrawal from this major forced sports journalists to handle the question of what is their role in the world of sports.
Television and print media is the bridge between the public and the athlete but how best to define their role? Are they there to report, inform, sensationalize, investigate, confront, applaud or develop interesting story narratives?
The power of the print media has grown in importance over time. Back in the 19th century, Victor Hugo understood the way print can influence the public and wrote “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” largely to awaken the public to the decayed state of Notre-Dame. Hugo saved Notre Dame from destruction because of his novel.
One hundred years later we have Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two beat writers for the Washington Post, responsible for the downfall of the Nixon administration through their investigative journalism of the Watergate break-in. Since then all politicians know that the media can make you or break you.
Fred DeMatteis was a real estate mogul, philanthropist and friend of mine and he always liked to joke “you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” Trump won his election by figuring out how to make an end run around the media through tweeting, thereby creating and controlling his own narrative.
You can gain real insight into the power of the media by reading the two classic dystopian novels of the 20th century, “Brave New World” and “1984.” Both Orwell and Huxley were amazingly prescient and described a future whereby the media was the ultimate tool of government to control the thoughts and attitudes of the public.
Recently, the documentary film “The Social Dilemma” revealed the addictive nature of social media, and how its profoundly and negatively impacted social life, politics, culture and emotional well-being.
The film is the real-life expression of what Orwell and Huxley predicted. The overuse of social media outlets like Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube has been shown to have a linkage to suicide rates, depression and hospitalizations especially in young women.
Which takes us back to the beginning of our story and the emotional collapse of Naomi Osaka. She, like most of the world’s superstars, has an ambivalent relationship with the media.
They understand that media exposure means ‘clicks,’ all of which are quantified and this persuades sponsors to affiliate with the star. Money earned by the star athlete is often far in excess of what they make on the playing field.
When one faces the media after a loss or a win, the athlete is invariably in a state of utter exhaustion, depletion and all they want to do is go home and sleep. But instead, they must endure tedious unimaginative questions and at times questions that do instill doubt as Osaka mentioned as one of the primary reasons for wanting to avoid them.
In fact, it takes a great and disciplined mind to manage all of this. Rory McIlroy refuses to listen to any television during a tournament because he knows in can instill doubt which could spell death to one’s self-confidence.
When I work with athletes who are exposed to media questions I always do my best to counsel and prepare them for the questions. The best celebrity mind I knew was Ronald Reagan who was trained to handle any question thrown at him by essentially ignoring it and expressing the narrative chosen by his team for that day.
Tiger Woods was a master at handling the media and was trained extensively by experts. When I interviewed him after his U.S. Open win at Bethpage I was struck by how bright and focused and confident he was, despite it being 9 p.m. at night after a long grueling Sunday.
Tiger Woods understood what Naomi Osaka has yet to learn and that is that the media is a two-headed monster. When it loves you it will take you into heavenly bliss but if it turns on you, it will devour you and spit you out without hesitation.
There is a debate now that her move of walking away from tennis will teach the media to change its ways and somehow be kinder or perhaps ask more incisive or interesting questions. I guarantee you this will not happen.
In 1919, Henry Adams wrote the classic essay “A Law of Acceleration” in which he described the unstoppable power and inevitable growth of technological advances. In it he wrote “A law of acceleration, definite and constant as any law of mechanics, cannot be supposed to relax its energy to suit the convenience of man.”
This is a truism and Ms. Osaka would be advised to read this essay, hire a media expert and get herself to a qualified psychoanalyst where she can ventilate her anxieties, her anger and or despair in the proper setting.
It’s that or her brilliant career will be greatly foreshortened and nobody wants that. She is the shining light in the game of tennis and the world wants her back asap.