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NAOMI OSAKA AND MENTAL HEALTH IN SPORT

Osaka’s recent withdrawals really beg the question: how seriously is mental health taken in professional sports?

Currently ranked second in the world, Naomi Osaka is paving her way to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time. From her first Grand Slam victory against Serena Williams in the US Open, Osaka has been the centre of media attention and amassed millions of followers and fans.

However, like many star athletes, the spotlight first shone on her at the daring age of just 16. In recent years many notable athletes, influencers and celebrities have highlighted how difficult the transition can be when you’re performing on the world stage before having graduated high school. Case in point: Osaka recently withdrew from Wimbledon, following a withdrawal from Roland Garros. While some say it’s a minor setback, it really begs the question: how seriously is mental health taken in professional sports?

During the French Open, Osaka was fined $15,000 for refusing to participate in compulsory press conferences, after an initial backlash she released a statement on Instagram saying: “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”

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And she’s not the first. In fact, Twilight star Kristen Stewart made headlines when she debuted as just a teenager, citing in an interview how in the years to follow it resulted in “acute stress” and severe panic attacks due to the immense pressure and constant attention from the media. Hence, Osaka clearly isn’t alone. A close friend of hers and basketball icon Kyrie Irving recently refused to participate in mandatory press conferences, and was subsequently fined and given a warning as the National Basketball Association considers it part of the job.

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NBA star Kyrie Irving was fined $35,000 because of his refusal to do postgame interviews. (Credit: NBA)

His refusal and hesitancy to return sparked important conversations in the community, and raised important questions. Irving introduced another important issue of racial discrimination during one of the press conferences held by the Brooklyn Nets: “There are many oppressed communities and so many things going on that are bigger than a ball going in the rim.”

While many fans found his words important, some criticised him by arguing athletes sign contracts to play basketball and not to talk. This didn’t come as a surprise after the 2018 episode between Fox News journalist Laura Ingraham and LeBron James. On live television in response to James’ political comments on former President Donald Trump, Ingraham said “it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball”. She described James as “barely intelligible” and was immediately met with backlash from the public, highlighting covert racism and disrespect towards the star. While these incidents may seem few and far between, it reveals the reality that the world’s greatest athletes are often not taken seriously enough; with fans and journalists disrespecting them and attempting to undermine them.

Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton tweeted in response to Osaka saying “mental health is not a joke, this is real and serious. This takes a lot of courage to do. Let’s all make sure Naomi knows she’s not alone.”

One thing we can all take away from this is as supporters is that mental wellbeing is as important as physical well-being. After Irving returned, Brooklyn went on to finish second in the NBA, with one of the best win rates the franchise has ever seen. Irving’s absence is an important reminder to fans that if we want our teams and players to win, we must allow them the opportunity to rest when needed.

A close source to Osaka revealed she is currently spending time with her friends and family and will return for the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Osaka’s agent said: “She will be ready for the Olympics and is excited to play in front of her home fans”.

Written by Araan Suares

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