In early May, a few weeks earlier than she tweeted that she wouldn’t seem at a required information convention at the French Open, Naomi Osaka was on a Zoom name with a author for Racquet journal who was making an attempt to achieve perception into the athlete’s internal life.
Ms. Osaka mentioned she’d gone to the protests in Minneapolis final yr and had been moved by what she noticed.
“It was a bit of an eye opener,” she mentioned of the expertise, “because I’ve never had time to go out and do anything physically.”
Ms. Osaka ignited a livid debate over the position of the tennis media along with her announcement that she’d pay a $15,000 advantageous reasonably than attend a information convention that she mentioned was dangerous for her psychological well being. Her determination, and the response from tennis officers, ended along with her withdrawal from the French Open. The British tennis author Andrew Castle referred to as her determination “a very dangerous precedent” that might be “massively damaging and a large business blow to everybody in the sport.”
If the freak-out over the cancellation of an inevitably boring information convention appeared a bit outsized, it was as a result of Ms. Osaka didn’t simply open a brand new dialog about psychological well being in sports activities. She touched a uncooked nerve in the intertwined companies of sports activities and media: the ever-growing, irresistible energy of the star. We journalists are sensitive about retaining what is usually pathetically minimal entry to athletes. The media was as soon as the principal manner that sports activities stars discovered fame, glory and profitable endorsements, and a shiny profile can nonetheless play a job in elevating an obscure participant. But the rise of social media and of a widening array of recent retailers has produced an influence shift, as my colleague Lindsay Crouse wrote in June, “redistributing leverage among public figures, the journalists and publications that cover them.”
Ms. Osaka walked into the center of that dynamic throughout the French Open. While tennis information conferences could be fairly bizarre — some native journalist in the room amuses the touring press by complicated one Russian participant for one more, or asks a very off-the-wall query — the temper is often fairly sedate. Most gamers roll with them with out grievance. And Ms. Osaka wasn’t being grilled about her private life or her psychological well being. She was bothered by questions on her efficiency on clay courts. Another current query involved what she deliberate to put on to the Met Gala, a high-society Manhattan occasion of which she is a co-chair.
She has develop into the best-paid lady in sports activities, incomes about $60 million final yr in accordance to Forbes, and nearly universally constructive protection hasn’t harm her potential to construct a portfolio that features swimwear and skincare strains, two Nike sneakers and the Naomi Osaka bowl at Sweetgreen. And she drew broad and favorable protection when she provoked a event into taking a time without work to make a press release on police killings of Black Americans. She has a canopy essay in the subsequent subject of Time that’s conciliatory towards the media even because it expands on her statements about psychological well being, an individual aware of it mentioned.
“The press is a willing accomplice to what most of these athletes are trying to accomplish,” mentioned the Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber.
Ms. Osaka at the Australian Open. She set off a debate about the media’s position along with her announcement at the French Open that she’d reasonably pay a advantageous than attend a information convention.Credit…Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images
I’ve an impulse to defend the want for athletes to give information conferences, on the precept that what Naomi Osaka does right now, Joe Biden will do tomorrow. But there’s an extra layer that muddies the media’s place, which is that athletes are solely speaking to us as a result of they’re beneath contract. “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” the operating again Marshawn Lynch groused repeatedly in a video Ms. Osaka additionally posted. There’s one thing a bit compromising in athletes showing at a information convention not as a result of they want, and even respect, the energy of journalism but as a result of a company is paying them to sit on the dais and reluctantly haven’t any remark.
Enterprising reporters can nonetheless get perception from information conferences, and lots of athletes don’t share Ms. Osaka’s stress about them. “It’s like pretty easygoing,” the Polish tennis participant Iga Swiatek mentioned final week. But whereas unbiased journalists can nonetheless ship every thing from breakthrough investigations to commentary, the position of journalism as a mere conduit for athletes’ phrases doesn’t make that a lot sense anymore. Ms. Osaka “could do a press conference on Instagram live if she wanted,” her agent, Stuart Duguid, informed me.
The ritual is “a relic of an era when they needed the press — when the press were the accepted conduit between athletes and the public,” a Guardian sportswriter, Jonathan Liew, mentioned in an interview.
But the Osaka story has broader resonance as a result of sports activities, and the media that covers them, are sometimes main indicators of the course by which we’re all headed. In 2007, Hillary Clinton’s high spokesman, Howard Wolfson, informed me he was preoccupied with Major League Baseball’s web site, MLB.com, and the way the league had created a media entity that it completely managed. Why couldn’t a politician and her marketing campaign do the identical, he questioned? It didn’t fairly work for her, but by 2008, Barack Obama was producing movies much more compelling than something the networks have been making. In 2016, the Trump Show was the smartest thing on TV, syndicated to your native cable community.
The assault on the unbiased sports activities media reached its peak with the 2014 introduction of The Players’ Tribune, with the promise of giving gamers their very own voice. But that effort just about fizzled, promoting to an Israeli media firm in 2019. Though it sometimes printed highly effective essays, it largely had that sterile high quality of a glorified information launch.
Athletes’ extra profitable ventures into media have prevented taking on journalism straight. The mannequin is the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who has spent a decade constructing a media firm that has completed offers for TV exhibits and films with HBO, Netflix, Warner Brothers and others. And at its greatest, these platforms can elicit greater than you’d get at a information convention. Mr. James constructed his firm, partly, on the perception that athletes would open up to each other, and “didn’t want to be asked questions that everyone should know the answers to,” mentioned Josh Pyatt, the co-head of WME Sports, who has been at the middle of constructing media corporations for athletes.
On a current episode of “The Shop,” produced for HBO by Mr. James, the quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged the picket high quality of many athletes’ feedback to the press.
“What I say versus what I think are two totally different things,” mentioned Mr. Brady, who co-founded one other media firm, Religion of Sports, with Michael Strahan, the former New York Giant and present “Good Morning America” host. “Ninety percent of what I say is probably not what I’m thinking.”
Who desires that? But someplace between the obligatory information convention and the glory days of Sports Illustrated, there’s house for a brand new unbiased sports activities journalism, one which reckons with the energy athletes now wield on their very own platforms but additionally retains a level of journalistic independence that the majority of the athlete-owned media corporations don’t try.
That, not less than, is the pondering behind Racquet, a stunning print tennis quarterly that began in 2016 with literary ambitions (the first subject included not one but two reconsiderations of the novelist David Foster Wallace) and has an formidable, various roster of writers. Its subsequent subject, due in August, can be visitor edited by Ms. Osaka. It contains the interview along with her (by Thessaly La Force, who can be a options director of T: The New York Times Style Magazine); an essay on the Japanese discovery, by way of Ms. Osaka, a Japanese citizen, of the Black Lives Matter motion; and a photograph essay on the tennis tradition in Ms. Osaka’s father’s native Haiti.
An illustration for Racquet journal that accompanies an interview with Ms. Osaka.Credit…Photo illustration by Johanna Goodman/Getty Images for Racquet Magazine
A tennis media that revolves round each day information cycles is “still living in an age where pulling quotes from a presser makes a headline, makes a story,” mentioned Caitlin Thompson, a former faculty tennis participant and veteran journalist who’s Racquet’s writer and co-founder, with David Shaftel. “They’re not operating in a world where an athlete can reach more people and be more attuned to the larger cultural and social contexts than they are.”
Racquet has tried to straddle these worlds. Its contributors embody Andrea Petkovic, a high German participant (and one other Foster Wallace fan), and the Greek participant Stefanos Tsitsipas, who can be a photographer. But it additionally printed a troublesome investigation of allegations of home abuse towards the German tennis star Alexander Zverev. And Thompson mentioned that youthful gamers “understand what we’re doing because they’re children of the internet — they’re all Gen Z.” The Australian Nick Kyrgios, as an illustration, has a “context in which he wants to be seen, which is this kid playing Call of Duty between matches and being more into the Celtics than the men’s tour,” Ms. Thompson mentioned. (The August Racquet subject additionally explores Ms. Osaka’s medium of alternative, manga.)
Ms. Osaka skipped Wimbledon, but she’s anticipated to be again for the Tokyo Olympics this summer season. And the Racquet subject provides a little bit of the texture of a younger star’s unusual life — between lodge rooms and tennis courts — that you’d be hard-pressed to discover at a information convention.
Ms. Osaka generally describes herself as shy, but she informed Racquet: “Tennis is a thing that I’m least shy about. At the end of the day, even if I don’t win that match, I know that I have played better than 99 percent of the population, so there’s not anything to be shy about.”