Content Warning: Contains references to mental health issues, suicidal ideation, and drug use. 

Naomi Osaka has been dominating sports headlines over the past week, not for an amazing performance or a historic win, but for refusing to participate in a press conference. Initially, she was fined $15000, but as scrutiny ensued, Naomi withdrew from the torment altogether, in a statement on her Instagram calling it “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing.” Naomi’s situation raises questions about what athletes owe us, the consumers, viewers, fans, and media, outside of their athletic performance. Depending on the popularity of their sporting code, sportspeople may enjoy a high level of celebrity and wealth. In exchange for this privilege, the public and sponsors demand the full package; extraordinary sporting abilities and a superhuman persona.

Sports are essentially a form of entertainment, and therefore athletes are entertainers. Their audience is the fans, who support teams or individuals and make it a financially viable industry. Sportspeople are now expected to provide constant content to maintain their fanbase, documenting their lives extensively through Instagram, Youtube, and TikTok. 

Traditional media also plays a role, packaging sporting narratives and highlighting personalities. The popularity of Netflix documentaries, such as Formula One’s “Drive to Survive”, shows an appetite for insight into the “characters” behind the championships. Rather than letting their performances alone do the talking, athletes are increasingly displaying the struggles that they go through on their path to sporting glory. However, this takes effort, which can detract away from their ability to train and perform. 

In an article for Runner’s World, elite distance runner Molly Huddle spoke of the challenges of “energy management” with her time divided between workouts and personal branding. This balancing act would be difficult at the best of times, let alone when an athlete is struggling with mental health issues. 

Compounding this issue is the pedestal sportspeople are placed on, heralded as role models for children due to the dedication and skill required to make it to the top of their sport. While the general public can be highly critical of athlete’s behaviour, some athletes enjoy near immunity from the consequences of their actions, protected by expensive lawyers, their schools, or teams. Assault, aggression, and hate speech can be dismissed as “off-field exploits”. Yet, mental health challenges and personal issues seem to have more of a negative impact on athlete’s careers than actual criminal offences. 

The toxic cocktail of pressure to perform while also exposing oneself to high levels of public scrutiny has broken many top athletes. The most highly decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, is outspoken about the struggles he faced throughout his career. Finding himself in a deep post-Olympic depression and experiencing suicidal ideation, he turned to substance abuse; “It would be just me self-medicating, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from.” When pictures of Phelps using drugs were released, his downward spiral continued, facing public criticism and being dropped by his sponsors. 

In an HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold ”, he highlighted that the way we demand so much of public figures, be that politicians, sportspeople, or actors, is internalized. “Yeah, I won a s***-ton of medals. I had a great career, so what? I thought of myself as just a swimmer. Not a human being.” 

Sportspeople’s mental health can be easily dismissed as a first-world problem (and often is; public displays of struggle such as Phelps’ or Osaka’s are often met with “Go cry in your mansion ” type comments). However, being a professional athlete is just another occupation, and where the workforce deserves rights, autonomy, and privacy. 

Naomi spoke of the mental toll that she experienced in press conferences in her initial Instagram post, saying “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this is very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We often sit there and ask questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or ask questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me”. 

When she withdrew from the event altogether, she elaborated on these issues; “anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.” 

At the end of the day, as Phelps said, athletes are human beings first. It should be down to the individual athlete, in negotiation with their sporting bodies and sponsors, how much of their lives they chose to share with us. Some will fulfil the role of entertainer. Others will let their skill speak for themselves. But no matter what, they deserve to be treated like people, not heroes or villains. Sometimes that will require holding them accountable for their misdemeanours. But it should also mean giving athletes grace and allowing them to set their own boundaries.