Naomi Osaka and the power of fame

Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Roland Garros rather than attend mandatory press conferences is as much a question of media access in the social media age because it is the unequal treatment of female athletes, and especially women of color. Osaka, who is 23, the second-largest player in the world, with nearly $ 50 million in sponsorship revenue last year and a very engaged fan base (with nearly four million followers between Twitter, Instagram and TikTok) does not play by the traditional rules of tennis, a sport in which the governing body is predominantly made up of whites and men.

When it comes to a philosophical debate between supporting a fine of $ 15,000 pop at Roland Garros, Osaka has the upper hand. As Roxane Gay tweeted in response to Osaka’s May 26 tweet announcing his intention to skip media availability, “I appreciate that energy” well, I don’t care. “

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In what now looks like a miscalculated bluffing exercise, all four Grand Slam tournaments have issued a statement threatening to escalate the issue with more penalties and possibly a suspension. Days later, Osaka – a somewhat awkward presence on the tour who described herself as “extremely shy” – withdrew citing her sanity, revealing that she had endured long bouts of depression since she won her first Grand Slam at the 2018 US Open. A flood of athletes expressed support for Osaka, although many, but not all, recognized the importance of submitting to media questioning.

It should be noted that Osaka’s sponsors, including Nike, have issued statements of support following its withdrawal. But as Rick Burton, David Falk professor of sports management at Syracuse University notes, his sponsors could apply. some ‘gentle pressure on it. The more visible it is, the more valuable its sponsorship. “

That it should never have come to this is now clear. But the setback underscores the power of Osaka’s stature command athletes in a social media-business driven by the stars.

“It gives her a space to control her narrative and context by sharing what she wants, when she wants to share it,” said Blake Lawrence, CEO of athlete marketing platform Opendorse, which helps athletes to. maximize their brands. “Whether the message is shared with reporters or via an Instagram post, fans and media will listen. “

The tension between athletes and the media has existed since the dawn of organized sports. Depending on your perspective, the wealth of social media and endorsement has fueled a creeping selfishness that allows athletes to evade unfavorable or uncomfortable lines of inquiry or democratized a media system by eliminating the journalist as an interpretive intermediary. . It should be noted that, so far, Osaka has made itself available to the press. And she is certainly not the first athlete to be fined for ignoring required media availability. Other athletes have used more confrontational and dismissive strategies in an attempt to say nothing of value to the media, even when they are in the room. Marshawn Lynch Super Bowl 2015 Media Day appearance in which he answered all the questions put to him with a variation of, “I’m just here not to be fined” is just a recent and infamous example.

And anyone who’s been at a press conference or watched one on TV knows there will always be rote or offensive questions. There is also anecdotal evidence that women have to put up with more shoddy questions than their male peers. On May 28, a reporter posed the following insane question to Coco Gauff at a post-match press conference at Roland Garros: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters, maybe it’s because you are Black,” the journalist said, according to multiple testimonials from others in the room. “I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American too.” We could have a final between you and Serena. Is this something you are hoping for? I mean 22 years separate you girls.

Even when the questions are not racialized, the demographics of the room often are. “I’ve been to so many press conferences where it’s an NCAA college basketball game and it’s black women [players] and they watch a sea of ​​white men asking the questions, ”said Lindsay Gibbs, a veteran women’s basketball reporter and co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn it all. “Do I think if the media were more diverse it would make a lot of these black athletes more comfortable? Yes. Because at the end of the day, their stories are told by people who don’t share their identity and don’t understand the weight they carry.

But the availability of the press, as uncomfortable as it is, especially after a defeat, remains an important element of media coverage, especially for women’s sport. Cheryl Cooky, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Purdue University, has followed media coverage of women’s sports for three decades. In his most recent study, published in March, Cooky and his co-authors found that media coverage of women’s sports had not increased significantly in 30 years. In 2019, the study found that coverage of female athletes in TV news and flagship shows, including ESPN’s “SportsCenter”, “ totaled only 5.4 percent of all airtime; in 1989 and 1993 it was 5% and 5.1% respectively. And in 2019, much of the women’s sports hole was consumed by the Women’s World Cup; overall coverage drops to a paltry 3.5 percent if the tournament is canceled.

“At the end of the day, I think we’d lose a lot if we didn’t get any post-game or post-game feedback,” Gibbs continued. “But there has to be good faith and empathy in these interactions. And we all need to be prepared to make exceptions or accommodations when necessary, while ensuring that the press gets what they need to do their jobs. I don’t know what it looks like. But I think this is the conversation we need to have.

The correlation between women’s sports coverage and funding are inextricably linked. Title IX effectively solved the funding chasm – as Cooky points out in her study, school-age girls’ sports participation has fallen from one in 27 to one in three since Title IX was adopted in 1972. Since a media version of Title IX isn’t forthcoming, getting media coverage of women’s sports – on a qualitative and quantitative metric – to anything approaching parity with men’s sports will require a drastic generational shift. This is what we are seeing more and more, and not just this week since Roland-Garros. Last March, the social media posts of NCAA basketball players Sabrina Ionesco and Sedona Price who called the inexcusable disparity between men’s and women’s training facilities in the Final Four tournament has gone viral. None of these athletes follow the old rules of the dying system.

“One of my hopes is that young people make a difference,” said Elizabeth Emery, a former cyclist for the US team who hosts the Listen to his sport Podcast. “They have a different attitude. They have a different attitude towards the media. They are not going to accept inequality, they are not going to accept to be treated differently. Women have been screaming and screaming about this for years. But young women will no longer take it.

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Larry Struck

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