Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
As fame shifts, Osaka’s protest will succeed
Tennis player’s stand for mental health marks a transfer of power to individuals
One night before the pandemic, I watched a famous Broadway star generously spend a halfhour or so greeting fans outside the theater. As we stood on the sidewalk, I remarked upon the warm post-show scene to a friend of mine who works in the talent business. “It’s so nice of him to do that,” I said. “He must be so tired.”
She shrugged. “He has no choice,” she said. “It’s part of his contract.”
That scene came to mind this week when Naomi Osaka, one of the most successful tennis players in the world, announced that she was not willing to fulfill part of her contract as a competitor in the French Open: to make herself available to the press after her matches.
Osaka cited her battles with depression and her consequent feelings of anxiety at those high-pressure encounters, especially after shattering losses, as well as a need, going forward, to protect her own mental health.
Like so many things these days, the reaction to Osaka’s statement, which first triggered a fine and then later her withdrawal from the tournament (and possibly more to come), generally divided among generational and political lines.
Young progressives overwhelmingly supported the activist, 23-year-old player’s decision, heralding it as a revolutionary statement of self-determination by a young woman of color against the oppressive tennis establishment. “When the system hasn’t historically stood for you,” wrote Lindsay Crouse in the New York Times, interpreting Osaka’s $50 million in annual earnings as no contradiction to that statement, “why sacrifice yourself to uphold it? Especially when you have the power to change it instead.”
Older people of all political stripes, and several veteran players who had seen their own fame fall away, argued that superrich tennis superstars had an obligation to speak to the media (a proxy for the public) that prop up the sport and could always control what and how they were willing to answer. Some also noted that lesser players could not afford to be fined nor make such easy headlines, so notions of equity and privilege were, as always, considerably more complex than the ubiquitous binary narrative of vulnerable individual versus oppressive institution.
“Here was an athlete on top of the world, with her sport at her feet,” wrote Oliver Brown in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “and in the space of four days it has all unraveled, after she articulated a stance that the tournaments who prop up her wealth could not possibly accept. The fault lies less with them than with Team Naomi for picking a fight she could never win.”
I think Brown is wrong in that last statement. Osaka absolutely can win. She is winning and will continue to win.
She has taken a position with which many people (including me) who don’t make Osaka’s kind of money can identify. She is taking a stand for mental health. She has aligned herself with the forces of change and even though this flap is about access for the press, she still has plenty of journalists and columnists on her side. Even her sponsors can’t say anything critical of her decision, lest they look mercenary in a way no corporation can afford to appear now. A decade ago, that would not have been the case. But the world is changing fast.
In the world of celebrities, and Osaka is already a huge star, we’re witnessing a huge transfer of power from fusty, historically patriarchal institutions, be they Broadway Leagues, awards committees, movie studios or governing bodies of sports, to individuals, especially those who have allied themselves with the struggles of their fans.
Like Taylor Swift, Osaka does not need to hold press conferences: she can reach more than a million followers on Twitter and other social-media platforms where she can control the conversation without risk to herself. Osaka clearly figured out that there was little point in running a gauntlet while anxious and vulnerable when she was never among the beneficiaries of the event.
Frankly, the media doesn’t really need those things either. News is rarely made at such events and both the questions and answers tend to be repetitive and superficial. They don’t represent socially useful journalism so much as easy content-creation designed for quick hits; the best reporting rarely flows from press conferences.
So who does need them? The institutions. They have products to sell. That’s why the tennis establishment was thrown into such chaos by what on the surface looked like an easy problem to handle. Osaka clearly needed a break and some kindness. The obvious solution was to say, we understand, look after yourself and skip the presser this time. But the tournaments saw this is a slippery slope leading to, well, a transfer of power to individuals and away from them. Which makes them nervous.
You can support Osaka and still understand why.
Take, for example, the longtime reliance of Hollywood on the movie junket. Some years ago, I watched Tom Hanks move from table to table at once of those affairs, answering the same couple of dumb questions literally scores of times. His smile never cracked for a second but, as those things piled up over a lifetime, it must have sucked away a part of his soul. On another occasion, at the peak of the fame of “The Sopranos,” I watched Lorraine Bracco do a series of TV interviews in Florida, answering repeated questions about her own mental health and experience with psychologists, for goodness sake.
She just laughed her way through, mocking her unimaginative interlocutors in ways they could not discern. Bracco was of a different generation. Tough as nails, she gained her power in subtly subversive ways.
Hanks and Lorraine put up with that because the people who sell sports or entertainment have relied on these rituals and thus have written them into their very lucrative contracts. And for the stars themselves, there was the fringe benefit of the kind of exposure they could only get from this alignment.
That’s all changed now. Younger celebrities and their apologists don’t see their level of compensation of coming with any such obligations. And they are less likely to view the institutions signing their checks with warmth.
Understandably. Over this last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of evidence of the rot within.
How will all this shake out? It will be fascinating to watch. Perhaps the wildly uneven financial compensation within tennis will become more equitable, with less difference between superstar winners and rank-and-file players. Based on her statements to date, Osaka would likely be OK with more of a revenue share. And if the media glare was widened, surely the pressure would lessen on single individuals.
On the other hand, competition for fame has not evaporated. On the contrary, it has increased. In a recent New Yorker article, Rachel Syme rightly argued that the process of becoming and maintaining celebrity has been upended.
“Fame always took work,” Symes wrote, “But, historically, stars went to great lengths to obscure their exertions. Most were ... idealized figures whose everyday doings — Brad Pitt goes to the grocery store! Jennifer Lopez rents a film at Blockbuster! — we cared about because they otherwise seemed unreal. Today, though, we constantly encounter people who are trying, hard and transparently, to become famous, not through distance but through aggressive proximity.”
Those people are the eminently likable Osaka’s new competition. Although maybe she’ll just play tennis and eclipse them all.