Ethics Observations On The Naomi Osaka Affair [Corrected]

Osaka2

On Ethics Alarms yesterday, the controversy involving the current top female pro tennis star, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, was relegated to the morning warm-up rather than a stand-alone post. If you were not following EA yesterday, here’s a quick summary:

Citing her annoyance with repetitious questions from the news media that undermined her confidence, the 23-year old announced that she would violate the 2021 official Grand Slam rulebook, which requires players to participate in post-match news conferences. Violations result in fines of up to $20,000, but since Osaka made over 55 million dollars last year alone, more than all but the most elite U.S. professional athletes, this fine would be like a late fee at the library to normal people. I wrote in part,

This is literally an example of a star announcing that rules are for lesser mortals. Verdict: Ethics Dunce. The reason Osaka makes so much money is that athletes are paid heroes and entertainers, and submitting to the idiocy of reporters is part of their job. Fines obviously aren’t enough: a tennis player who refuses to fulfill her obligations to the sport should be banned from competing until she does.

Yesterday, after winning her first round match at the French Open, Osaka was fined (but only $15,000), and tennis officials proved that they read Ethics Alarms (I jest) and told Osaka that continuing her boycott of the media would result in her being suspended from the current tournament and others. Good. The organization had no other choice, unless it wanted to directly endorse the King’s Pass (Rationalization #11). If Osaka was allowed to snub the media with minimal consequences (for her), then no other player would feel obligated to cooperate either. Rennae Stubbs, a former player who is now a coach and ESPN analyst, stated the obvious while most of the players and former players were expressing sympathy for Osaka: “You cannot allow a player to have an unfair advantage by not doing post-match press. It’s time consuming, so if one player is not doing that and others are, that is not equal.”

Yet Osaka apparently thought she was above the rules (“laws are for the little tennis players”) and could get away with violating them. Oops! After she was fined and warned, she issued this statement via social media:

Osaka tweet

She continued,

Osaka tweet 2

Observations:

1. Naturally, we are seeing a lot of “It’s a sad day for tennis” articles. No, it’s a good day for tennis: the sport stood up to a star who decided she was entitled to special treatment.

2. I assume, without knowing, that Osaka had some PR expert’s help in drafting the statement above. It still sets my ethics teeth on edge by using several rationalizations, like Hillary’s “It wasn’t the best choice” ( “my timing wasn’t ideal”). She also plays the depression card, which is like playing the alcoholism card (Mel Gibson, dozens of others) after public misconduct. “Don’t blame me! Don’t hate me! I’m sick!” Maybe she is, but when highly-paid mega-stars in any arena only reveal such alleged maladies when their own actions or words have gotten them in trouble, we are entitled to be skeptical.

3. Genuine “self-care” would have meant skipping the tournament, not just the press conferences. Osaka thought could pull a fait accompli, because of her status. Apparently she has no advisors, friends or others who could explain to her why this was neither ethical nor smart. There’s no excuse for this. She’s rich, she’s young, she has lived in the bubble of a tennis phenom her whole life. Someone she trusts, probably many, seriously failed their responsibilities here.

4. If celebrities are going to communicate to the world using social media, they have an obligation to learn how to communicate competently.

5. Gilles Moretton, the new French Tennis Federation president, and others repeatedly tried to speak with Osaka after she blindsided them with her unilateral decision not to participate in press conferences at the French Open. That should exonerate them of the criticism coming their way now from Osaka defenders and sympathizers. She gave them no choice but to fine her and warn her when she refused to give them other options.

6. The New York Times dreams, “There are perhaps better ways for professional journalists to find out more about tennis players and their matches.” Than asking them questions? Right.

7. The same writer (Christopher Clarey) who made that fatuous statement redeemed himself by continuing,

As Billie Jean King likes to say, pressure is a privilege, and repetitive questions are an inconvenience but also a reflection of legitimate public interest. Media coverage, much of it favorable, has helped Osaka become the world’s best paid female athlete. She earned more than $55 million in the last year, nearly all of it from sponsorship deals….facing unwelcome questions, even in defeat, does not seem like too much to ask. “No comment” or a more polite demurral remain legitimate options.

Bingo.

8. He continues,

“But one of the takeaways from l’affaire Osaka may be the realization that some players really do find it all too much to bear…The debate will be, how much special treatment should such players receive?”

The verdict here? None! If being a public figure and a celebrity is “all too much,” then the ethical options are 1) fix the problem or 2) stop being a public figure. The latter, of course, requires also surrendering the aspects of fame that are attractive, like the money, and special privileges. It is an old cliche, but still applies: “stars” and “kings” like Osaka want to “have their cake and eat it too.” They also want public sympathy when that proves impossible.

We shouldn’t give it to them.

35 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Naomi Osaka Affair [Corrected]

    • It worked for her! And Garbo, Eleanor Powell…and Christy McNichol, Freddie Bartholomew and Jimmy Cagney was still getting great parts when he quit to become a country squire in Martha’s Vineyard. John Hughes.

      • Eh, not exactly the same. Freddie Bartholomew moved behind the camera (something a lot of actors do), and only ceased being active around normal retirement age while suffering from emphysema. Jimmy Cagney was 66, normal retirement age for his time, when he ceased being active in films because he believed he couldn’t do his best work anymore. Kristy McNichol is still active teaching. Eleanor Powell continued performing live after her last film appearance. John Hughes did drop out of sight fairly early…and then went down for an early dirt nap at 59. Garbo I think was battling mental illness, and by her own admission often floundered in retirement, not knowing what the heck to do with her time. None of them top DD, who retired at 28 to a farmhouse outside Paris, granted precisely ONE interview in the remaining 63 years of her life (in 1983, long after anyone gave a damn), and didn’t allow her passing to be announced publicly until her body was cremated and the ashes scattered. There isn’t even a grave for fans to pay their respects at. I think she hated the world. Frankly, I would have WELCOMED death after 63 years in retirement and isolation.

        • I didn’t have the impression of DD. Her last interview showed me someone who was happy being a country wife, and who resented the abuse big studios subjected their stars to (and probably still do.) She outlived Judy Garland, her early rival, and Judy would have lived a lot longer if she could have walked away.

          Shirley Temple quit showbiz flat at a younger age. She didn’t have to: she still had a career, just not what she was used to as the Greatest Child Star Ever.”

          Freddie became an ad executive at 30. 66 may be retirement age in other professions, but not acting: virtually all of Cagney’s contemporaries, male and female, worked long past that age, or until they dropped dead. Powell mad on film after WWII, then did some nightclub acts 9 years after her last film. For a mega-star like she was, that’s the equivalent of quitting. It would be like Meryl Streep doing dinner theater.

          I didn’t say these people stopped doing anything.

          • “I didn’t have the impression of DD. Her last interview showed me someone who was happy being a country wife, and who resented the abuse big studios subjected their stars to (and probably still do.) She outlived Judy Garland, her early rival, and Judy would have lived a lot longer if she could have walked away.”

            Judy probably should have walked away, or started to phase out, right around the time Barbra Streisand’s star began to rise. You’ll never convince me that DD didn’t hate the world, and I have a feeling on the other side she had to do some serious answering to God for non-use of her not-inconsiderable talents, as my CCD teachers used to tell us. If God gave you a talent, He meant it to be used and used to its fullest.

            • I agree with that last part. DD is almost entirely forgotten, and she was the top Box Office star in the US for a couple of years. But as someone who has had his toe in professional show business, it’s a lousy way to live. I don’t blame anyone for bailing out.

              • That much I will agree with. It’s a tough business, as Dr. D said to John Stossel before clocking him.

  1. To an extent, I feel for athletes. No, really… I do. They don’t trade in their humanity when they get that amazing amount of money, and while there are absolutely galling examples of whiney arrested-development manbabies complaining about some of the stupidest things imaginable and need to be told to buck up, there are lines. Obviously giving fluff interviews don’t cross the line.

    I’m seeing a lot of chatter about this, and I think that the chatter is being too dismissive of the mental health angle. Let’s say that Osaka really is suffering from depression. She could be. She’s got money. She’s got power. But money and power don’t buy you happiness (they just help a little with misery). In that case, Jack is right: Osaka is independently wealthy (read: She doesn’t need the money), if she’s concerned about her mental health, taking a step back from the event is probably the best case scenario for her, and she should have done it to begin with.

    And that’s something of a variable theme from this last year; I’m seeing a lot of exceptionally wealthy, exceptionally powerful people demanding and expecting a particular kind of empathy. Sympathy for the rich. Megan Markel is a great example; She said that she suffered from mental health issues but didn’t seek help because the royal family disapproved. That’s…. Novel, considering the Oprah interview. Let’s be real, The Royals probably did frown at the idea of someone seeking help, because the Royal ethos is steeped in the idea of right to rule by blood, as if their heritage, their lineage, is superior, and so displays of weakness, particularly mental weakness, would be discouraged. But… So what? Again…. Megan is independently wealthy. Not only does she have her own money, but Harry got a pretty heft inheritance when Diana died.

    If Megan wanted to get help, there isn’t a thing on Earth that could have prevented her from getting it.

    If Naomi wanted to get help, there isn’t a thing on Earth that could have prevented her from getting it.

    But they both didn’t… At least not initially. Because despite having all the money and power in the world, despite being independent in ways that you or I can’t even dream of, they wanted more. Osaka wanted to compete, Megan wanted to be Diana 2.0. We aren’t being asked to merely give them space or understanding to deal with their mental health, we were asked to treat them specially. Mental health over the last year declined markedly. The Suicide prevention hotline marked an 800% increase in volume between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021. Even if the call volume doesn’t translate to and increase in attempted suicides, it seems obvious that people are under an unusual amount of stress, and stress kills.

    Everyone is under stress right now, and while I can have empathy for anyone suffering from mental health issues, I’m not going to break out the special waterworks for celebrities who want to get well and maintain their status to the detriment of the less connected people around them.

    • As someone who has had some mental health challenges, I am not without sympathy for Ms. Osaka when talking about mental health. I am damn lucky I survived 2018. However, I think your penultimate paragraph says it all.

  2. BTW, I checked, and, although Ms. Osaka makes more than ALMOST any US professional athlete, there are seven who top her, including Tiger Woods.

  3. I’m just not so sure about this. People who can perform at the highest level are different. Maybe we should just let them perform and then leave them alone. A music critic friend told me, “We go to concerts to see artists perform the impossible.” Isn’t that enough?

    And what happened to “Shut up and dribble?” LeBron and Kap get slammed for shooting off their mouths about non-sport related topics and now a tennis star just wants to serve and volley and go back to her hotel room and she’s slammed as a malcontent? I’m just not sure why blathering to a bunch of ink stained wretches is part of the deal. Sportswriters seem as prone to self-agrandizement as run of the mill journalists, particularly political journalists. Yo journalists, you’re not the story.

    And sports writers are sycophants. For the most part, they are justifiably despised by high performance athletes. Watch the match and report on how it unfolded and concluded and file your story. Grow up.

    • A modest proposal: athletes issue pre-approved quotes for use following a win or a defeat, as applicable. Journalists are then free to use any of the quotes in their stories about the appropriate outcome. No interviews required.

    • Sports writers are sycophants, which is part of my reluctance to accept that it may be too much of a challenge for her to face. Sports journalists not only ask virtually the same questions every time, but they accept literally any answer in response. My wife and I regularly laugh when we come across a sports interview, because it seems that athletes take several courses in how to speak for a long time without saying anything. “Well, Brett, we just looked at the ball and played it where it lay. the team really came together in the clutch, and while there were things that could have gone better for us, I’m really proud of the game we played.” At this point, I’m more inclined to side with Miss Osaka, just to combat the sheer banality of it all. Let thejournalists go get real jobs for a while.

      Still, nobelesse oblige. If being a power super star is too much to handle, don’t do that anymore.

      • I guess I’m biased, Aaron, insofar as I’ve become immune to all professional sports in my dotage. Caring about young people playing children’s games as I turn seventy strikes me as very unseemly. Time to grow up. Before I die. The hype surrounding pro sports is extremely off-putting. Pro sports are a huge con and not worth following.

        • I agree, although I’m sure most of the things I spend MY time on, others would view with disdain, as well. I try to pay attention enough that I can can ask “boy, local team sure is playing good/bad this year, aren’t they? Did you see the last game?” That’s usually enough to get a fan’s flywheel up to speed, so they can take over the conversation.

          • I’ve checked out entirely, although I do find the buying and selling of franchises and the other mega business aspects interesting. Now there’s a game: He who dies with the most money wins.

  4. Osaka achieved the pinnacle of her sport in 2018, a straight set win at the US Open over the greatest, check that, the best female tennis player of all time. It’s no stretch to imagine that having that moment stolen by the despicable actions of that best woman player could lead to depression. Geez, it could be like PTSD. She’s clearly introverted as she says and uncomfortable with the public aspects of her position in tennis. Being at the very top of any sport is hard for anybody. But she’s rich as Croesus, so there’s no sympathy for her. She’ll figure out how to cope…or not, though I agree with Jack that somebody she trusts failed her. She still has to abide by the rules even if the rules maybe should accomodate players with her sort of public issues a little better. As Jack often opines, legal is not the same as ethical. A greater concern, to me anyway, is the on-court “medical” time-out and treatment rules. A player such as number one world rated and number one seed Ash Barty can drop a set and suddenly need a back massage on the court. Big surprise, after the momentum of her opponent is broken, she returns and wins set three to advance in the tournament. Not particularly saying Barty is the devil, this happens quite frequently in tennis. Here’s a suggested rule change: if you can’t play, default. There’s already a clock on how long you get to serve, and on the changeovers. So if you’ve got a blister or a cramp, tough it out and play or retire to lick your wounds. Not to put too fine a point upon it… it’s TENNIS. In boxing there’s no medical time out, and this is tennis. So I’m much more critical of Barty and all others who use the atrocious medical time out than 23 year Osaka thrown into the deep end. I don’t need he social commentary, but I hope she comes back a little stronger.

  5. When I saw the story on the evening news, I exclaimed, ‘Good for her!’. The way the Japanese press has treated her since she came to Japan is appalling, I figured she’d had it, just reached her tipping point. She came to Japan and was contracted to represent Japan with almost no knowledge of the language. The Japanese press corps is not known for their English ability, except for some famous names. Run-of-the mill reporters? Forget it!

    For a while it was fine, the Japanese were glad to have her, and they used an interpreter for interviews. As time went on, however, reporters started to expect her to pull her own weight linguistically. She has been studying, but a year or two is not enough (I can sure as hell attest to that!). She made an effort to answer questions in Japanese, but she’s not really at a level to do that yet (of course). These jackals would laugh openly when she made a mistake, and dubbed her Japanese ‘Naomi-bushi’ or ‘Naomi style’ (not real Japanese, you see) and the Japanese public lapped it up…viewers really like her, and think she’s cute, and want to see more of her (she really is beloved) which caused the press to gradually get more aggressive in trying to get those ratings-grabbing ‘Naomi-bushi’ sound bites for their own programs. At interviews with interpreters present, they yell, ‘In Japanese!’ ‘Answer in Japanese!’. How she spoke and her mannerisms became the story, not what she had to say, or even her performance on the court.

    One more problem is that she has evidently never had any public speaking training, or training in how to overcome stage fright, and no real guidance about the culture gap. In interviews she talks like a teenager ‘Well like, um, I dunno,’ ‘Ya, like, I guess’ and it makes her look immature. So the press laugh at her for that too, call her ‘karui’ (not to be taken seriously). So they stopped asking serious questions about her play and training, anything a well-qualified athlete would be asked, and their questions are just pap like ‘How do you like Japan’, ‘What did you eat for lunch’ ‘What do you like about Japan’, and ‘Do you think you’ll win?’ and without any language or cultural guidance (hey there, Naomi’s Japanese parent!) the usual American athlete’s ‘Yes, I think I can win’, without the qualifying polite phrasing normally used in Japanese, comes off as bragging. She’s being cut no slack at all. She said once a couple years ago that she likes katsudon (deep-fried pork cutlet on rice) and it was a big deal because it’s not a ‘womanly’ dish. Image-wise it’s a truck driver meal. So the reporters went to town, and two years later, she gets asked in every interview if she’s eaten katsudon lately. So, this woman racks up win after win, and the press from the country she represents treat her as an airhead and ridicule her language abilities and her food choices (‘Don’t you worry about getting fat from katsudon?’).

    If she refused interviews for the Japanese press only, she’d be slammed here, I thought that’s why she said no interviews at all. I realize it’s against her contract, the tournament rules and sportsmanship, but for a few seconds last night I was happy she stood up for herself.

    • I realize it’s against her contract, the tournament rules and sportsmanship, but for a few seconds last night I was happy she stood up for herself.

      WHAT? The woman—and she is a woman, not a child—has been aware that she lacks crucial skills essential to her job, which is paying her millions. She could have found a speaking coach. She prefers to play victim. She is 100% at fault. You’re not standing up for yourself as an athlete by violating contract, the tournament rules and sportsmanship. You’re disgracing yourself. If she were a man, she would be getting no support at all.

        • Thanks for the Japan aspect of this situation, crella. Until this story popped up on EA, I had little idea she even existed. Until I googled her, I had no idea she was half Japanese and half Haitian. Holy Cow! Where are the social justice warriors to defend her against this white supremacist effort to steal money from her? She’s half Pacific Islander and half of color and she identifies as female! For God’s sake, she’s won the genetic trifecta. Where’s her King’s Pass? Is it stuck in the mail? Why should she have to talk to white sports writers? It’s perfectly fine for Lori Lightfoot! Sheesh, she’s even a New Yorker/Long Islander. Where’s the outrage that should be spewing forth from Brooklyn? Who knows, she may even be a lesbian!

  6. Well, this is awkward. Petra Kvitova had just defeated Greet Minnen in the first round, but then fell during her “post match press requirements”, resulting in an ankle injury. She has elected to withdraw from the remainder of the competition to heal from the injury but expects to be ready for Wimbledon in late June. I honestly don’t know that this has an ethics angle to it, just rotten luck if it is exactly as she says it is…. but I thought it interesting enough to add here.

    https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/jun/01/petra-kvitova-out-french-open-injury-during-press-duties

  7. Since I am an introvert – but not a recluse or hermit by any stretch – I sympathize with Naomi Osaka. I sympathize with much of what crella, Other Bill, and Humble Talent have said here.

    I honestly disagree with you Jack, on the assertion that Osaka owes the world access to her every answer to every question that some dumbass press “worker” thinks to ask (they’re all “players” now, those “pressers” – big-shot shits, entitled assholes, hence my sarcasm in the quote marks around “worker”). And NO: She doesn’t owe the world her expenditure of her considerable earnings on personality-transformation therapy and non-tennis-related coaching, just to be able to talk to a bunch of strangers after her winning performances. Just leave her the hell alone, for a change. She’s a skillful tennis player, and crowds of people appreciate her skills – and now, SHUT UP, everybody who “wants a piece of her.” She’s a skillful tennis player, and THAT. IS. ENOUGH.

    • I can’t imagine reporters in the US yelling ‘English!’ at a foreign athlete using an interpreter. I’ve never seen American reporters yelling at Yu Darvish or Ichiro for using an interpreter. The Japanese are very harsh on those who don’t learn the language.They aren’t even pretending to be polite, just yelling over her, ‘Nihongo de!’ (‘Japanese!’) every time she opens her mouth. It’s unimaginably rude.

      ‘She doesn’t owe the world her expenditure of her considerable earnings on personality-transformation therapy and non-tennis-related coaching’

      Knowledge of the culture she was entering would have saved her a lot of pain, and I think (as an introvert who suffers from stage fright), that if I were to accept a position which required frequent TV appearances I absolutely would get some training in public speaking. It’s not about changing her personality, but acquiring the skills to interview well.

  8. Jack, the end of your Point #3, “Someone she trusts, probably many, seriously failed their responsibilities here.” On that, I agree with you. When the formerly trusted turn against you and inflict their assholery on you, you have to out-asshole them. I hope she quits speaking Japanese.

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