HealthStacy M. Brown

Why Naomi Osaka and Athletes of Color Are Routinely Denied Essential Mental Health Breaks

Athletes are people first, and they have the same physical and mental health issues that most others experience, argued New York Mets superstar Francisco Lindor.

“As athletes, we have a lot of people looking up to us, and we want to be role models to them beyond the game,” Lindor stated.

The comments came after tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health concerns.

French Open officials fined Osaka $15,000 when she refused to speak with the media. Osaka cited her mental health when she announced she would not take questions from reporters after a match.

“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka asserted.

The 2018 U.S. Open was Osaka’s first Grand Slam win, but her victory over Serena Williams in the championship match was marked with questionable calls by the referee and Williams’ resulting fury.

Instead of celebrating the momentous victory at the tender age of 20, Osaka somberly accepted her championship trophy.

“Everyone got robbed. But no one more than Osaka,” wrote ESPN reporter Alyssa Roenigk, who covered the match.

Williams even admitted: “Wow, this isn’t how I felt when I won my first Grand Slam. I definitely don’t want [Osaka] to feel like that.”

“It was a difficult moment to watch,” Roenigk continued. “The champion should not have been the one being consoled. Regardless of how you feel about how things unfolded, what’s not up for debate is that Osaka was robbed of her moment. She deserved better.”

Samantina Zenon, a mental health advocate who suffers from anxiety, said Osaka did the right thing by walking away from the French Open.

“She expressed her struggle with depression and anxiety in the past. She was conscious enough to know her triggers and did what was best for her,” Zenon stated.

“I heard many people say, she signed a contract, well people break contracts all the time. Although that was not the outcome we expected, the situation became even more toxic as they threatened to expel her if she was not willing to put her mental health on the line. And I can’t say I’m surprised, as people of color, we are built differently, so we should endure pains no matter what and be grateful for an opportunity.”

Zenon noted that Black athletes specifically need to prioritize their mental health and not just be entities to the sports organization.

“And no, they are not too big and bad to care for their mental health,” she argued. “We have seen many athletes fall, even with their big contracts. Being a professional athlete comes with a lot of pressure. They have to deal with people who are running the organizations, crazy fans, personal problems and still show up like nothing happened because they have to ‘be professional.’”

Athletes often are expected to be at the top of their game and be physically always fit, said Girish Shukla, a computer engineer and freelance digital marketer.

“While both these things are incredibly important, what we often lose sight of is how important mental health is,” Shukla announced. “Sports can subject an athlete to a unique set of challenges and circumstances, which can make them vulnerable to depression or anxiety. If these feelings are not checked then they can culminate into something much bigger and much worse.”

Dr. Marcuetta Sims, a psychologist and founder and owner of The Worth, Wisdom and Wellness Center, said sports reporters and athletes should give more attention to mental health.

However, the reality is that there are so many layers to consider, Sims opined.

“To start, athletes are expected to be superhuman. This is particularly salient for Black athletes and athletes of color,” she determined. “They are told to be grateful for the opportunities that are given to them as an athlete – the fame, the notoriety, and the access.

“But this often comes with a great cost,” she said. “They are told to grin and bear it, smile through the pain, not discuss it when in reality, they hurt just like everyone else. They are under an immense amount of pressure to perform and be perfect, which often results in anxiety and depression even for people who are not athletes. When I read about what happened to Naomi, I was also reminded of Marshawn Lynch, and while in a different scenario, there is this sense that the athlete is owned by the governing body and has to do exactly what they are told despite their personal feelings and needs.

“This takes away their capacity to be human again, and ultimately, they become a commodity of the sport they play,” Sims said. “This can take a significant toll on an athlete’s mental health, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It also takes away their agency. To force someone to speak on a stage to the media or be kicked out of the French Open, despite agreeing to pay the consequence, is shameful at best. To be able to stand up and say, this causes me pain, and I would like not to participate, is a human right that has to be respected.”

Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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