Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open following her not wishing to undertake her media commitments has forced competition organisers, governing bodies, the media and athletes themselves to question the status quo. We have all seen the really awkward press interviews of clearly distraught athletes and it is uncomfortable viewing, some athletes even walking out part way through. But the situation with Osaka is more complicated. In her full statement she refers to the depression and anxiety she has experienced and how attending media interviews was not something that she was comfortable doing at the time. Athletes go to extreme lengths to give themselves every opportunity to perform well and this was an obvious example of self-care. Despite being clear that her reasons for not attending her media commitments were due to her mental health, the organisers indicated that she may be defaulted (rather than just fined) for not doing so.
If Osaka was an employee, her depression could amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. In such circumstances, an employer would have an obligation to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate the particular needs of the employee. In the UK, tournament organisers may even have similar obligations as service providers to the self-employed professionals taking part in the event. Whilst a tournament organiser may be reluctant to allow every player to avoid the media interviews on which they rely to generate revenue, there could be a case for making exceptions to these requirements altogether or putting other measures in place, such as allowing a player more time before the interview, sight of the questions first, making a short pre-prepared statement, or allowing a coach or manager to be interviewed instead. Dialogue between tournament organisers and players to put in place a fair policy that works for all is key.
One thing for certain is that the French Open is worse off for the withdrawal of Osaka. Mental health issues should not be a barrier to competing in high level sport. Taking these concerns seriously, whether legally required to make adjustments or not, and creating an environment in which all players have the ability to perform to their best ability is essential.