In the early days when cricket captains were required to attend press conferences at the end of a match, I avoided them. For one, it cut into deadlines, especially from abroad. For another, these were usually banal sessions with the most insightful question being: Skipper, what was the turning point of the match? That ended when one day an irritated skipper Kapil Dev responded with: You were there, you tell me .
In any case, if I had something important to discuss I preferred a private conversation with players who were easily accessible then.
The press and the athlete had a symbiotic relationship. It was believed that the athlete needed the press more than the press needed the athlete. And the press was happy to regularly endorse that view. As tennis legend Billie Jean King tweeted recently: “In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought.”
But things have changed. By skipping the mandatory press conference and then pulling out of the French Open tennis, world No. 1 Naomi Osaka has shown that the power balance has shifted. Players don’t need the press. Social media gives them a direct connect to the people, eliminating the middleman.
The battle lines are clearly drawn: the press thinks Osaka is breaking a sacred covenant and needs to be rebuked, while many players have come out in her support. But it is far more nuanced than that. Osaka has said she gets stressed at press conferences and sees no reason why she should be served up as a sacrificial lamb when her primary responsibility is to play tennis, not explain herself to (and through) the media.
Yes, she has a duty to her sport; yes, as the highest-earning woman athlete her words matter, and yes, she has a contractual obligation. In return, she gets to transmit her views across the world, while her sport and her sponsors get publicity.
The collective versus the individual works so long as the individual isn’t affected. But what if it is impacting Osaka’s mental health and is a distraction from tennis? Then athletes, like a former US President, want to control the narrative.
But social media posts are single-sided, and not furbished by the rub of media questions. The public is fed views convenient to the athlete and not sieved through the probings of professional journalists. There is, too, the matter of access denied to the less-known publications or those without connections.
There has to be a middle path between an individual’s concerns and the collective’s need (not its right, let’s be clear — Osaka is not an elected politician) to know. Fines and bans are not the answer, they merely exacerbate the problem.
After her second win at the US Open last year, where she wore masks in support of Black Lives Matter, Osaka was asked what the message was that she wanted to send.
“Well, what was the message that you got?” she replied.
You were there, you tell me.