What is lost in the Naomi Osaka-press conference debate is that the sports media mostly humanizes athletes.
The media makes you, the fan, care more because it is its job to tell you what you can’t see. We do that by asking questions and, subsequently, hearing what we don’t know.
That is why the player-reporter give-and-take that begins in press conferences and grows is vital for sports. While far from perfect, it leads to more understanding than less. Osaka’s mental health is more important than any sound bite so it is a separate issue. And, for what is worth, her balking at questions is nothing new.
In baseball, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and All-Star Albert Belle famously did not talk to the media. The games went on.
The larger sports media issue is if Osaka is just the first of many, where dwindling access will lead to less being understood about athletes.
We are entering an important moment in time for sports leagues and media as we move toward a post-pandemic world and a return to more normalcy.
These days, with social media allowing athletes to communicate with fans, there is a trend toward forgetting the middle man.
“Every athlete now, by and large, grew up in a social media world,” Bob Costas told The Post. “They grew up, many of them, for better or worse, tweeting their every thought. The money is so large that they are surrounded by handlers.
“They can pick and choose who they want to talk to, under what conditions, what the subject matter is, there has been a growing gulf between them and the beat reporters and the mainstream news people and perhaps their appreciation and understanding of what that job is and how important a well-rendered and fair profile or a well-written game story or a well-presented telecast. Some players are more aware than others, but I think there are forces at work that make them less aware and less appreciative.”
Major League Baseball may be on the verge of bringing back some normalcy. Soon, according to sources, it may allow reporters back on the field for pregame warmups, making possible one-on-one access with players. During the pandemic, nearly all interviews have been relegated to Zoom.
With MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and players up at the end of the year, this could be an issue of how the sport is covered.
Before the pandemic, reporters were allowed in the clubhouse for an hour prior to the game and after for reaction interviews. This interaction allows players to be understood as humans, not just athletes.
In 2001, after Mariano Rivera gave up the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series, he answered questions with the grace of a champion. In a career built on playoff success, we once again learned more about Rivera, the person, in defeat.
The media tells the story of these athletes in a way athletes, themselves, can not. After retiring from playing, Derek Jeter began a website called The Players Tribune that was supposed to be athletes unfiltered, as if they were sitting at a keyboard, like in-shape bloggers.
The site has had a few hits, but mostly it missed because it actually was a Trojan Horse. It was PR that was presented as the truth. It could only tell filtered stories.
That is mostly what you will get if there is no regular give-and-take between athletes and reporters, while everyone just tweets.
“What is lost is quality of expression,” Costas said. “I don’t care who you are. You could confine Lincoln to Twitter and it wouldn’t be so great.”
While the idea of continuing limited access may appeal to some league executives and players, the stories that the media tells, from the elementary to the dramatic, create greater bonds.
There may be a way to do things better. But if the everyday interactions between reporters and athletes cease, they will never come back. A way to understand athletes better will be lost.
Osaka’s mental health is far more important, but a tipping point between sports and the media is upon us.
These interactions are about a part of sports’ DNA. If they are ever lost, they are never coming back.