My first 17 years in this business came as a sports writer and sports editor.
I worked mostly covering scholastic sports at papers in Norwalk, Connecticut, Westchester, and Rockland counties in New York and in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Over that period, I also got to cover a good deal of professional and college sports, including all the New York area pro sports teams at one time or another, along with multiple professional golf and tennis events and a fair amount of NCAA Division I college basketball.
Covering sports at any level involves developing relationships with coaches and athletes you eventually will want to interview for game stories, previews, features, columns, etc. I always treated them with respect and most of the time they reciprocated.
Outside of the New York Jets and the New Jersey Devils, each of which I covered regularly for a couple of years, I didn’t really get to know pro athletes beyond a surface level.
Thus, like many of my colleagues, I depended on interview opportunities set up by team or sport public relations folks. The larger the event, the more important these group media interview sessions were for providing readers with the best coverage I could give them.
When I first heard last week that four-time Grand Slam tournament-winning women’s tennis superstar Naomi Osaka would not participate in post-match news conferences during the French Open because negative questions about her play affected her mental health, I initially didn’t know what to make of it.
I had sympathy, of course. Dealing with the media can be difficult. Though Osaka is the No. 2-ranked women’s player in the world, she is also only 23 and a self-described introvert.
On the other hand, anything that limits media access is always a matter of concern for journalists. I have long thought that athletes owe it to their fans to speak with them through the media.
I soon came to realize that perspective needed some further review.
When Osaka withdrew from the French Open, she wrote in an Instagram post that she struggled with depression and anxiety, something she had not spoken publicly about to that point.
I think Osaka’s statement about her mental health concerns should serve as a wake-up call — not only because of her, but because how we handle mental health in this country remains a major problem.
Think about this for a moment. If Osaka had suffered a physical injury or been discovered to have an internal medical problem — heart palpitations, kidney pain, etc. — reaction to her absence from press conferences would have been very different.
We have, as a society, never embraced the idea that the wounds we cannot see or examine with an MRI or x-ray are just as serious and require just as much care and attention as those we can.
In our communities, state and nation, the need for more resources for mental health care and education has never been greater. I hope this event fuels the conversation about that.
As for media access, trust me. League and sports executives and members of the media are by no means in love with each other. It’s a selfish symbiotic relationship. The people whose job it is to promote sports need members of the media to help do it. The members of the press need access, so the officials provide it.
It’s a win-win, until it’s not.
There have always been athletes who chose not to talk to the press. Most do, however, in many cases for self-interest reasons.
I don’t think anyone should be forced to do it or be fined for not doing it.
And I think we need to understand that athletes, like all of us, are human beings with human issues that we are often in no position to judge.
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