Serena Williams comforts Naomi Osaka after Osaka defeated her in the women's final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Sept. 8, 2018, in New York. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)
It is profoundly disturbing that Naomi Osaka felt compelled to withdraw from the French Open, one of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments. It is also illegal to make her feel like she needed to withdraw.
The 23-year-old Osaka is the No. 2 female tennis player in the world at the moment. She won the previous two Grand Slams, and she has won a total of four in her young tennis career.
Osaka, who moved to the United States at age 3 from Japan, struggles with depression and anxiety. In 2018, she issued a tearful apology during the trophy ceremony after winning (not losing) her first Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open, over the American crowd’s favorite, Serena Williams. Williams, who is probably the greatest female tennis player who ever lived, quickly let everyone know – including Osaka, especially Osaka – that the then-20-year-old had nothing for which to apologize.
Williams’ whispers and gestures to try to console Osaka, and her exhortation to the crowd to stop booing and give credit where it’s due, demonstrated that Williams’ prodigious athletic gifts are matched by a compassionate heart. I still remember to this day how moved I was by what Williams did. Watch it for yourself here.
Threats instead of accommodation
The governing authorities of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments should have learned from Osaka and Williams. Before her first match at the French Open, Osaka had informed tournament officials that news conferences adversely impacted her mental health, and that she would be willing to be fined for not participating in them during the tournament. She also said she hoped that any fines she paid would be donated to “a mental health charity.”
Shockingly, not only did the president of the French Tennis Federation not agree to Osaka’s reasonable request for an accommodation, he persuaded the heads of the other three Grand Slams – the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open – to publicly release the contents of a letter they wrote to Osaka in which they threatened to disqualify Osaka from all four tournaments.
Naomi Osaka on March 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)
“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences,” the release said. “As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament … and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.”
These threats led Osaka to withdraw from the French Open and “take some time away from the court.” She apologized for any inconvenience she has caused. As Williams aptly suggested in 2018 after Osaka had demolished her 6-2, 6-4 to win the U.S. Open, Osaka owes nobody an apology.
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The same cannot be said for the heads of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Indeed, they do not seem to know about, or care about, anti-discrimination law. Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, are brain disorders. They are not caused by a flawed personality or poor parenting. By law, including French law, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate the mental health issues of employees and potential employees.
Mental illness is a health condition
Osaka is a professional tennis player who makes her living playing tennis. The president of the French Tennis Federation prevented her from doing that at the French Open, and the heads of the other Grand Slams threatened to do the same at their tournaments. Threatening to hold someone’s mental health issues against them is illegal. Osaka’s willingness to be fined rather than participate in news conferences that exacerbate her mental health issues was a request for reasonable accommodation to which tennis’ governing authorities should have agreed.
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For her part, the young Osaka maturely and selflessly stated in her withdrawal communique, “I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
As for Williams, she once again said exactly the right thing: “I wish I could give her a hug. … I think she is doing the best she can.”
Tennis’ governing authorities need to do the best they can, too. The law requires them to do so. Equally important, basic human decency requires it. The leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments belatedly pledged to address Osaka’s concerns – after she withdrew, amid a backlash of sympathy.
Naomi Osaka is a phenomenal tennis player who, like millions of people around the world, has a health condition that she is trying to manage. Threatening to deprive her of her livelihood made matters worse, not better.
Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University, an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project and a longtime member of the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The views expressed here are his alone.
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