How Tennis Highlighted Mental Health Stigma in Sports
Recent events in tennis have highlighted mental health stigma in sports and mental health struggles in sports in general. I'll be honest; I don't follow sports—neither the actual games/matches/events nor the athletes—but the controversy with tennis player Naomi Osaka bowing out of the French Open due to backlash over her mental health self-care decision caught my attention.
Putting the Sport Before the Athlete: Does Their Mental Health Matter?
As I poured through Osaka's tweets as well as articles, opinion pieces, and videos, I realized there are many conversations to be had, several of which boil down to the sport being put before the athlete. As for how mental health stigma is manifesting, we can see it in the form of discrimination, stigma in the workplace, and lack of reasonable accommodation in relation to job requirements for disabilities. It's been hard to decide how I want to approach this conversation of mental health stigma in sports in a meaningful way.
One thing that sticks out to me is the statement made by the Grand Slam Tournaments, which fined Osaka and threatened to ban her from subsequent tennis tournaments should she continue her refusal to attend post-match press conferences that negatively affect her mental wellbeing.1 The Grand Slam Tournaments collective stated the following in a release about her leaving the tournament and their role in it.
"As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honor their commitments."2
But how would Osaka have an unfair advantage over other athletes by not attending media commitments? Or do they mean she'd be at a disadvantage? If it's the former, it's as if they're subtly acknowledging these events can be detrimental to an athlete's mental wellbeing, and therefore abstaining from them would be unfair to those who still subjected themselves to them. I hope I'm misinterpreting their intentions because that, quite honestly, is terrible.
Whether that's the meaning behind the statement or not, this sort of messaging suggests that mental health doesn't matter, especially when it comes to the workplace or your profession. Those take priority, perhaps especially for sports, where athletes are often seen first as public figures that owe the fans something and second as autonomous people. While it's true more athletes are opening up about their struggles, there's still a long way to go for how the sports industry reacts to the struggles in practice, not just when it suits for good publicity.
The Impacts of Mental Health Stigma in Sports and the Questions We Should Be Asking
The negative impacts of mental health stigma in sports are clear in Osaka's response to the situation. In another tweet, she apologized for taking attention away from the sport with her struggle with anxiety3, which is a misplaced sentiment for those who struggle with mental health. They feel the need to apologize to others because of a feeling of inconveniencing others by being unwell when in reality, that's not on the person struggling.
Another point of interest in this situation is how Osaka being a person of color, plays into this. How might this conversation be different if Osaka were Caucasian? I have no experience in this area, and therefore I don't feel right tackling that part of the narrative, but I think this is among the questions we should be asking when considering how mental health stigma is not only being highlighted in tennis but all sports.
What are your thoughts on this? How have you seen mental health stigma in sports?
- Osaka, Naomi [@naomiosaka], (2021, May 26). No text [Image attached] [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/naomiosaka/status/1397665030015959040
- Grand Slam Tournaments, "Statement from Grand Slam Tournaments regarding Naomi Osaka." RolandGarros.com. May 30, 2021.
- Osaka, Naomi [@naomiosaka], (2021, May 31). No text [Image attached] [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/naomiosaka/status/1399422304854188037
Barton, L. (2021, June 14). How Tennis Highlighted Mental Health Stigma in Sports, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, December 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2021/6/how-tennis-highlighted-mental-health-stigma-in-sports