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:
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.“
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.