The Mental Health Burden Of Press Conferences On Athletes
In the wake of Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open, NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Rod Benson, retired basketball player and columnist for SFGATE, about the future of sports press conferences.
AILSA CHANG, HOST: Kicking a person while they're down - that's how tennis pro Naomi Osaka, the world's No. 2-ranked player, describes the experience of a postgame press conference after a loss.
Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday and wrote on Twitter that she would be taking a break from competition, a dramatic turn of events for a four-time Grand Slam champion who said she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
A day earlier, she announced that she won't be doing any press conferences during the French Open, despite financial penalties that could run in the tens of thousands as a result.
Osaka, recently listed as the 15th highest-paid athlete in the world, can afford to foot those bills. But her emphasis on mental health and backing away from these press events has sparked a big conversation in sports.
Here to talk more is Rod Benson, former pro player in the NBA's D League and overseas. He retired in 2018 and is now a columnist for the San Francisco news site SFGATE. Welcome to "All Things Considered."
ROD BENSON: Hi. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
CHANG: So Osaka wrote in her social media statement that people - and she means the press here - have no regard for athletes' mental health and that she's not going to subject herself to, quote, "people that doubt me." You've been on that side of the table - right? - answering questions.
CHANG: Describe the kind of questions she's talking about.
BENSON: I guess if I'm looking outwards - right? - it's just you. And overseas, I might have a translator, but it's just you, and 30, 40, 50 people staring at you, waiting to ask, essentially, why you failed. You know, win or lose, after a game, you're on your highest level of - you know, of alert. Like, your adrenaline is still rushing. And usually they, you know, will ask these questions while you still have your jersey on, often before you even make it to the locker room to decompress.
So the questions that, especially after a loss, can be borderline insulting - do you think you'll still be on this team next week? Or why did you play bad? Just - so simple as that, where it's like, I haven't even processed this yet. And so the issue is that when you are asked a question like that, you're really only setting the athlete up to either, A, give an answer that's meaningless or, B, you know, wear their heart on their sleeve, and a lot of times that ends up in fines anyway, especially if you're an NBA player. And none of it makes you look good, so why continue it?
CHANG: I want to run by you some of the responses to her social media post 'cause I think it's not unusual, this idea. You know, someone's saying, look; this is a privilege. You get paid so much money, and part of that is doing press conferences. You know, the idea - someone else saying, look; I can't imagine saying that I could just, like, not do something that's part of my job. Is there something to any of those criticisms, from your point of view, from fans?
BENSON: Fans kind of misinterpret what the job is. The fans' job is to just be a fan. An athlete's job is to compete at the highest level. Now, some of the things that come with that job, they're created by sources of money, essentially, networks. You know, it'd be like if you worked at McDonald's and they said you had to do three spins every time you flipped a burger. It's like, just 'cause they say it's your job doesn't mean that it's helpful, doesn't mean that it's not a waste of time, doesn't mean that it's something that you shouldn't push back on to improve.
CHANG: How do you think this kind of high-profile media boycott can have an effect? What would be indications to you - what will you be listening for over the next couple days to give you a sense of sort of how people are thinking about this?
BENSON: Right. I think as the pendulum swings, you'll see reporters trying to ask softer questions to start. But I think in the end, they should ask more thoughtful questions. I think that changing when a press conference happens - if I still have my jersey on, it's probably too soon. Why can't we do it the next morning? Ask me at that time. The reason why they don't do it that time is 'cause they want these crazy reactions. But if they gave it a day, someone could take care of themselves first and then give the proper answer that - at that time.
CHANG: Are the fines going to be a deterrent? Can only the Osakas of the world walk away from these penalties?
BENSON: I mean, first of all, the Osakas of the world are the only ones being put into press conferences that frequently. If I was on an NBA team right now, I wouldn't probably ever do a press conference. So that is part of it. If you're the one that's being asked to do it, you also have the power to say no. If I was asked to do it, there's no way I would say no. I would probably need that exposure as the last guy on the team 'cause it would be so infrequent.
CHANG: Rod Benson, thank you so much for talking with us.
BENSON: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
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CHANG: Rod Benson is a columnist for the San Francisco news site SFGATE.
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