The Other Columbus: I’m just here so Naomi Osaka won’t get fined

On mental health and wishing I could share my pizza with the tennis star following her withdrawal from the French Open

Scott Woods
Naomi Osaka on March 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Naomi Osaka’s nationality is Japanese, but she makes no bones about her Black bones. Her father is Haitian and her mother is Japanese, which in any neighborhood I’ve lived in makes her my play cousin.

Earlier this week, my play cousin withdrew from the French Open citing depression and the additional anxiety brought about in being forced to navigate the global media. This followed tournament officials fining Osaka $15,000 for skipping a Sunday press conference after her first-round match.

I worry for my play cousin, not because of what or how she feels; those are human emotions and she is allowed to have them without commentary from the media or even her cousins. Depression on some scale is so common it shouldn’t be newsworthy, save that airing such emotional touchstones could save someone’s life. I was depressed just last week, alone in the world of my mind, and never had a more delicious compensation pizza.

No, I worry for my play cousin because she lays her head every day in the gaping maw of a lion’s mouth, making her way through a professional sports institution that is both reserved as an elite recreation and utterly racist. Professional tennis — its rulings, its accessibility and its media — are so conservative that it doesn’t even bother to hide such machinations. It would be poor form to engage the world outside of tennis. Except for the press. Members of tennis media pools get to say any horrible thing they want, and because it’s tennis media, there isn’t as much range as there is for more Everyman sports. 

Osaka’s life is both way easier and infinitely more difficult than mine. She’s famous and she has lots of money, which tends to make all medicines and evils go down a little smoother. What money and fame costs is another issue altogether. For instance, I am not constantly being exoticized for having been born part Asian. I am not a woman, let alone a woman of color, so I am also not constantly being harassed, infantilized or considered less-than-man. I am not constantly having my abilities questioned because I am a woman by grown folks who couldn’t beat me in tennis when I was 10, let alone 23. I am not constantly being asked how I view myself, as if any answer could make the question go away. I do not have to answer the same questions by the same room of reporters at the same tournaments over and over again, as if my answers should change. And even if the answers did change, I have the benefit of no one trailing me everywhere I go, checking in to find out all of the differences in my personality or worldview from month to month.  

So maybe money isn’t remotely close to everything, and fame is as much a cage as it is a springboard.

Athletes shouldn’t have to decide between doing the thing they’ve trained their whole lives to do — a thing that they love to do, and that has probably changed not only their life but the lives of their families — and their well-being. Contractually, they do. But they shouldn’t have to. Especially if the reason they want to beg off is because they don’t want to speak to a room full of people who don’t play tennis, who aren’t particularly creative in their line of questioning, and who can print their petty conclusions in front of millions if they don’t appreciate how the athlete has answered their frequently unnecessary and problematic questions.

And it’s not like the press corps is strictly asking about her game. Othering, exoticism and old-fashioned white supremacy have pretty much been on the Osaka menu since she went pro in 2013. If she was being asked questions about rackets and strategy — like most of the other players in the field — we might not be having this conversation. 

Ultimately, the transactional nature of this reality exists for one reason: money. For all of its classy trappings, tennis is as capital and ratings-perverse as any other offering on television. The Q&A afterparty for most sports events isn’t particularly engaging as a rule. They’re merely attempts to inject some drama into a narrative that can almost always be boiled down to “Team/Player A beat Team/Player B.” Taken in that light, a press conference is hardly worth taking a hard line against someone’s well-being, especially when their presence is driving your sport. I mean, industry. And look: Either the penalty is $15,000 or it isn’t. If she’s willing to pay the fine, then the French Open shouldn’t be moving the goalposts. Sorry you encountered a player who can afford your bogus punishment.

At the risk of making things seem worse than perhaps they are in Osaka’s world, all I want to do is what Serena Williams wants to do: to throw my arms around Osaka. I want to have what she’s seeking normalized. I want to be able to talk about what jobs and fame do to our mental health without it turning into a mental illness checkbox. I want to hug her and tell her these things because sometimes knowing them is not enough. I want to sit with her and watch Marshawn Lynch’s 2015 SuperBowl Media Day interview on a loop, laughing every time he says, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Not as a lesson, but as a warm and golden sermon. 

But mostly, I want to share my pizza, which for me is an intimate and holy thing. And if I have to suffer through whatever healthy version of a pizza is in her life to make the point, then that is the pie I will deliver.