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'Sidelined' Author's Take On Naomi Osaka's Media Boycott

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 2021 French Open begins tomorrow, but one tennis star has already made headlines for something she will not do at the event. Naomi Osaka, the No. 2 women's player in the world, announced this week that she will not be participating in media interviews at the Grand Slam event. She explained her reasoning in a lengthy statement on Twitter, saying, in part, quote, "I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health, and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds. And I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."

As you might imagine, lots of reaction among fans, other elite athletes and sports media. And you can read a lot of those reactions on Naomi Osaka's Twitter. But we decided to call upon one sports writer, Julie DiCaro, because she's had her own experiences challenging norms in sports coverage. She's a senior sports editor at Deadspin and the author of "Sidelined: Sports, Culture, And Being A Woman In America." Julie DiCaro, thanks so much for joining us once again.

JULIE DICARO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So initial reactions?

DICARO: I think she's absolutely right. You know, she is 23 years old. Naomi Osaka carries herself with an incredible amount of grace and intelligence. And, you know, we just found out that she is, for the second year in a row, I think, the highest-paid female athlete in the world. She made something like $55 million last year. I think athletes get fined $20,000 at these tournaments by the Tennis Association for not speaking to the media, and she has it. So, you know, she's sort of in a position to make her own rules when it comes to this kind of thing. And certainly, especially when it comes to the international press, we have seen incidents in the past where they do ask really terrible questions, especially with women like Serena Williams, especially with women of color, you know, sort of to bait them into saying something that they can then write up. So, you know, I think that...

MARTIN: Example - would you give an example?

DICARO: Well, you know, I think that after Serena Williams spoke in 2018 after the meltdown at the U.S. Open, along with Naomi Osaka, which a lot of us felt Serena was incredibly justified in, and then she had to stand there and defend herself. You know, and everybody saw what happened. We've seen, you know, in international tournaments, we've seen reporters who maybe don't actually cover tennis, confuse different players of color with each other. I mean, things like that happen overseas. And I think there are quite a few people that will cover these events that aren't as knowledgeable about the sport as other people.

And then I think there's just the fact of having to - you know, coming off a loss, she's 23 years old, coming off a loss and then having to sit there immediately afterwards and break it down. And I think she's doing absolutely the right thing for herself by prioritizing her mental health over, you know, the financial penalty.

MARTIN: So what do you say, though, to the criticism? And there's, of course, a lot of - there's been a lot of response to this who say, look, this is what she signed up for, that this is the life of a professional athlete. It's not a secret that everybody knows this going in, and that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

DICARO: Well, I think that a lot of the people that I've been saying that are white tennis players and are male tennis players. And I think that the rules have always been very different for Serena Williams, for Venus Williams, for other women of color who are playing tennis. You know, we've all seen Serena break down in postgame press conferences because the questions just keep coming, and you're exhausted, and they either keep asking the same thing or they're asking questions designed to try to get you emotional. And certainly, there are a lot of people in the press corps who are just there doing their jobs and doing a very professional one. But there are also always people there who are, you know, trying to get the - their controversial response that they can then spin into something.

MARTIN: And wait. Wait. Let me just jump in here. And you're saying you think that that behavior is directed most intensively at women athletes and even more so at women of color athletes?

DICARO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

DICARO: You know, I just - I think that the way - you know, I'm going to have to - I would have to go back and research to see exactly what was said. But I do think that, you know, that we have seen Serena and Venus Williams treated not just in the press afterwards, but the way they've been treated by tennis fans. Obviously, Indian Wells is an infamous example of, you know, the racism that has been tossed their way. And I do think that they're treated differently. You know, Serena is constantly asked about her activism towards women and her daughter, if she's out there representing all women - which is a mantle that she has gracefully taken on as her own. But, you know, it does seem that the rules change a little bit for them, particularly overseas.

MARTIN: Do you think that Osaka's surfacing this will change anything?

DICARO: I hope so. I know that the USTA has said they're open to having a conversation with her about it. Maybe it'll cause some people in the media to sort of rethink the kinds of questions that they ask or, you know, repeating a question that the person has just answered three times, that athlete's already answered.

But, you know, when it comes down to it, I don't expect much to change. And, you know, to her points, one of the things you're already seeing is the media positioning this as the players who are pro-press conference against Naomi Osaka. I've already seen several headlines that are like Ash Barty and, you know, Rafa Nadal against Naomi Osaka. And I think that that is part of the problem. That's exactly the reason why she doesn't want to speak to the press.

MARTIN: But I think some people might be curious to hear your take on it as a sportswriter, because I think sometimes - I think what in part you're seeing is the institutional imperative rising up and being - not being pleased, right? I mean, you're seeing a lot of takes on this from sportswriters who are not pleased because they feel it's challenging their institutional imperative, their access. And they're saying, like, for example, I saw one a tweet from one writer who said, these athletes now have access to communicate with their fans in ways that didn't exist, you know, 25 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. They can talk to their fans directly. But that the person said, oh, you not only want to answer the questions, you want to decide which ones will be asked. Well, what about that?

DICARO: No, I think that's exactly right. And I think that, you know, I saw a really great thread on Twitter from Soraya Nadia McDonald, the great writer at The Undefeated, who sort of walked the line on this where I think that, you know, of course, as a media member, I want people to be available. I want to be able to ask them questions. At the same time, I respect the way she feels about it.

And I think that maybe the media needs to do some real soul-searching about the way they approach these. You have to go to press conferences prepared, and the vast majority of journalists do. But, you know, you have to listen. You have to not ask the same questions over and over. And you need to not ask questions just because you've already pre-written a piece and you want to get them to say something that will fit your narrative. And I think that's a real problem with what we have going on today.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I'm just curious if you've expressed yourself in this, and what are you hearing from your - have you expressed what you've expressed here? And I'm interested if your peers have had anything to say about it. Again, one of the reasons that I called you is that you have experienced some vicious harassment as a woman sportswriter, right? People - when you've raised issues that your other, you know, your peers had not previously been raising as around, like, the behavior of certain athletes toward women, for example, that has not always been appreciated. And I'm just curious if you've expressed yourself on this and what reaction you've been getting.

DICARO: I think that the way that the system is set up has not worked for women. It certainly hasn't worked for Black women and other women of color. And I think that anytime someone is challenging the status quo and trying to change things, I feel an obligation to support that, whether or not it helps me personally in my career or not. And, you know, one of the things I - she really had me sort of sit for a second and think, you know, we really do just look for the most controversial thing a person says. And then we write up that story. And what that may be - the way that that affects people mentally, I don't know that's something that journalists stop and think about as often as they should.

MARTIN: Have you? You think you've ever asked something you wish you could take back?

DICARO: Oh, yeah, for sure. I'm sure that I have. You know, and I think it just has to do with acting like - you know, you look at the power and the money that someone standing in front of you has. And I think that that sort of gives them a bulletproof persona. And I don't know that enough of us realize that you're talking to a human being. And I will say that I do think that social media has gone a long way towards humanizing athletes and hopefully getting us to, you know, sort of think - just think a little bit more before the questions that we ask.

MARTIN: That's sports journalist Julie Dicaro. She's the author of "Sideline: Sports, Culture, And Being A Woman In America." Julie DiCaro, thanks so much for talking to us.

DICARO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.