Naomi Osaka, or when news breaks in your research area



When a news story breaks in your area of research, it is an odd rush.

My first instinct this past week is that I should say and write something about what’s happening. After all, I have dedicated years of my life to studying this issue. I am an lower-case expert on the subject. This is what I do.

My second instinct is to retreat into the world of my books and my journal articles, to say I need to think deeper about it. And while I think that is true, I also feel like that is a cop out. It’s an excuse to turtle, to not have to place a stake in the ground, to avoid the debate.

It’s weird, when what you’ve dedicated your professional life becomes the top story of the day. And this is only a tenth of what people who study coronaviruses, pandemics, communicable diseases have gone through all day.

And then I think about it like this: What if, instead of a should this was a half to. What if, instead of just dealing with this in the quiet of my own mind but played out on a world stage? What if, instead of this text file and car conversations with my incredibly patient wife, I had to talk about it to a room full of people asking me questions, broadcasting my answers live to the world?

On one hand, the Naomi Osaka feels like an immense story. It feels like an inflection point in the history of and practice of sports journalism. This is a vibrant athlete at the top of her game, a young woman of color whose face is all over billboards and bus stops in New York City, taking on the sports industrial complex head on?

On the other, it’s one athlete in a sport that most of America cares about, at most, three times a year.

On one hand, I get the argument that press conferences are less than ideal vehicles for journalist-source relationships and for good interviews. On the other, 99 percent of all sports media press conferences are at worst harmless and at best do provide some insight for readers.

On one hand, I’m sympathetic to reporters working at the French Open who are not trying to tear Naomi Osaka down but just want quotes from her so they can file their stories on time. I have sympathy for the argument that everyone has things in their lives they don’t like to do but you do them any way because that’s what being an adult in the world means.

On the other hand, I have increasingly little patience for a world in which older white men can order a young woman of color to obey. I have little patience for a world in which we claim to care about athletes beyond their on-court play but punish a player who tries to take care of themselves.

What the conversation and commentary here is looking for is answers. A hero and a villain and a storyline. And the research doesn’t really offer any. What the research shows is that access to sources is an integral part of how all journalists, including sports journalists, do their jobs in America and has been several generations. Sports journalists see themselves as the voice of the fans, and by having access to interview players, the journalists act as the proxy for fans. This is a core journalistic value.

But that doesn’t move us forward. These are media practices built for a time of scarcity, not abundance. These are media practices built by white reporters and editors that reflect an unbalanced power dynamic. These are media practices built to help reporters do their jobs – and by extension, help make them money and their companies money.

This story gets to the heart of the power relationships in sports, the gendered nature of sports coverage, the racial nature of sports coverage, our understanding of mental health.

But, it’s also about one person at one tennis tournament..

It’s complicated.



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