[Author: Aakash Thiagarajamurthy, a third-year student of Law at Jindal Global Law School]
Over the past decade, the role played by the media and the impact it has had on major sports has been far greater and more visible compared to before and we see the media as almost an integral part without which major sports tournaments, leagues and competitions just cannot function. However with the increase in importance of media, there have been cases of athletes having strained relations with the media where the athletes do not want to answer questions, do not want to be subject to certain types of questions or they do not wish to engage with the media at all. This article will address issues like whether the athletes are obligated to talk to the media and where the line needs to be drawn with regard to punishments for rule violations and relaxations with focus on 3 special cases of athletes refusing to engage with the media.
The 3 famous incidents of media-athlete tension
One extremely famous example of a professional not engaging with the media after a game is that of former NFL athlete Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks in 2014. Marshawn Lynch appeared for the post-match press-conference and almost didn’t say anything to the reporters. He made gestures like shrugging to questions and other movements. He even went on to say “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” during the interview.
Another notable example from 2021 is that of Kyrie Irving, one of the most talented basketball players in the NBA who plays for the Brooklyn Nets. He is one who deeply cares about public welfare and helping the underprivileged. During the NBA training camp he refused to talk to the media stating that he was not feeling happy about the way artists were being treated by the media and that artists need to have the freedom to make decisions in their lives without any badgering from the media. He went on a media silence stating that “this was not an attack on journalists,” but subsequently adding that “he does not talk to pawns and his attention is worth more”.
The most recent incident of an athlete refusing to talk to the media post games is that ofNaomi Osaka in the French open. She is the highest paid female tennis player. She openly stated that she would be skipping her media obligations for the French open due to mental health reasons. She released a statement stating that talking to the media causes her immense anxiety and that she had already been suffering from depression and mental health issues since 2018. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) President Gilles Moretton said that the organisation will penalise Osaka for her actions and went on to do so. The Federation imposed a fine of $15000 on Osaka and warned her that she could be expelled from the tournament for such actions. She later withdrew from the tournament stating that she will be focusing on her mental health and it was the right thing to do at that moment while also delivering the message that mental health should not be trivialised.
What is the interplay between sport events and the media?
When the question of whether athletes are obligated to address the media arises, it becomes very important to understand the role that the media plays in sporting events. The athletes understand that when they sign up to be professionals and play a sport for a living by taking part in events, there are certain obligations they have to fulfil. The media is what enables the sport itself to be promoted. Promotions are pertinent to generating revenue, in addition to professional athletes performing at the highest level possible. Hence, as a result of promotion of a particular event, the organisers are able to bring in the money to pay the athletes. It has also clearly been stated in Article I E of the 2021 Tennis Grand Slam Rule book that “Each player also agrees to cooperate with the news media and to participate upon request in promotional activities of the Grand Slam Tournaments”. This is one of the main reasons why many people choose to argue that it is wrong on the part of the athletes to ignore the media, because the athletes are paid huge sums of money and them addressing the media is a small part of their job and a way of generating revenue for the same. Some feel it would have been acceptable even if Naomi Osaka had simply appeared and didn’t say much to the media as happened in the case of Marshawn Lynch.
Analysis of the above cases
Article III Part H of the Official Grand Slam Rulebook 2021 states that “Unless injured and physically unable to appear, a player or team must attend the post-match media conference(s) organised immediately or within thirty (30) minutes after the conclusion of each match, including walkovers, whether the player or team was the winner or loser, unless such time is extended or otherwise modified by the Referee for good cause”. This is an acknowledged rule, however this does not mean that we completely ignore mental health and its underlying importance, as statistics show that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which can be in the forms of stress, eating disorder, burnout, depression and anxiety. Some of the main causes for athletes facing these problems are overtraining, performance expectations, experiencing failure, injury, low social support etc. At the end of the day, elite professional athlete’s mental wellbeing is always at jeopardy due to the abovementioned factors. They are also subjected to a lot of pressure with the growth of social media and the fact that anyone can say anything without any major consequences in today’s day and age does not help the cause of athletes. Hence, the actions taken by the French Open authorities seem to be a tad bit excessive in the case of Naomi Osaka.
To substantiate this I would like to draw comparisons from the cases of both Marshawn Lynch and Kyrie Irving. Marshawn Lynch was fined over $100,000 by the NFL for violating the league’s media policy and for his media conduct. He clearly stated that he was only attending the press conference so he doesn’t get fined. The NFL fined Lynch as the NFL media policy clearly states that, “Players must be available to the media following every game and regularly during the practice week and It is not permissible for any player or any group of players to boycott the media” and Lynch through his actions did boycott the media. In the case of Kyrie Irving, he went on a media silence and later stated that he did so as he was unhappy with the way artists were treated. The NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement [Rm1] [AT(J2] in Article VI, Section 3 clearly states that healthy players are required to be available to the media after practices and matches. He was then fined $25000 for this. This again could be a case where the league was justified in imposing a fine on the player, as the player without providing any reason went on a media silence even while he was healthy and broke his silence only after the fine was imposed. Naomi Osaka had made extremely clear the reason as to why she would not be addressing the post-match media before she went on a media silence and her reason was not of a frivolous nature as if someone suffers from a mental health issue then they are not healthy. Merely suffering from a physical injury cannot be the only way to determine if a player is unhealthy or not. Their mental well-being needs to be taken into consideration Therefore the situation could have been handled differently by the authorities as was suffering from mental health issues.
Rather than compelling her to be present for the press, they could have come up with a system where the questions could have been sent to her separately and she could have answered them at her own pace, she could have made her representatives answer some of the questions on her behalf. With the pace at which social media is growing and how prevalent it is in today’s world, getting answers and responses from Naomi Osaka would not have been a difficult task at all if the French Open authorities had considered to do so and the overall promotion of the event would not have been hampered. An important aspect that must be considered for the future is that the wording of Article III Part H of the tennis grand slam rule book, must include provisions for athletes to skip media obligations if they are suffering from mental health issues too in addition to excusing them not being physically available due to injury, as the mental well-being of the athlete must be given equal importance to their physical well-being. This must also be applied in both the NFL media policy and Article VI, Section 3 of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement
To sum up, we have entered a time where the mental well-being of athletes needs to be considered before federations and tournament organizers decide to slap them with fines and suspensions. The pro-athletes are the ones who have bigger reach and the power to influence people, more than the tournament organizers or the leagues. Hence the current rules on the media obligations of athletes in the NBA and NFL collective bargaining agreements and the Tennis Grand slam rulebook need to be re-assessed and amended in a manner suitable for the future where crucial aspects like mental health are taken into account. One way of doing so would be to allow athlete to answer questions remotely where their overall contact with the media is less, and using social media platforms to convey messages from the athletes to the masses instead of conventional press-conferences and post-game addresses. To conclude, the mental health of athletes needs to play a pivotal role while a federation or an event decides to take action against an athlete for violating his/her media obligations and a more sensitive approach needs to be employed to ensure that the mental health of athletes are further not deteriorated.
PREFERRED CITATION: Aakash Thiagarajamurthy, “En Guarde, It’s the media”! – The ongoing feud between the Media and Professional Athletes and its implication on athlete’s mental health, SLPRR, <https://sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com/?p=1588> August 3, 2021.
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