2021 will go down as one of the worst years for LGBTQ rights across the U.S. in recent history. Over the past six months alone, over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced into state legislatures and at least 17 have become law. Much of the legislation has focused on transgender youth—particularly transgender women and girls—and their ability to play on sports team consistent with their gender identity.
The rights of trans athletes is the focus of the new Hulu documentary Changing The Game, which follows three trans high school athletes as they navigate athletic competition while also having to advocate for their right to be there: Sarah Rose Huckman, a skier in New Hampshire, Mack Beggs, a wrestler—who, despite being a trans man, is forced to forced to compete against girls due to Texas policy—and Andraya Yearwood, a runner in Connecticut.
Yearwood and a fellow trans runner, Terry Miller, became embroiled in a media storm in 2018 after winning numerous state championship titles. In 2020, both were named in a lawsuit filed by the conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, on behalf of four cisgender female runners, alleging Connecticut’s trans-inclusive school sports policy was unfair. The suit asked that Yearwood and Miller be banned from playing girls sports in the state. (It was dismissed by a federal judge on April 25.)
“Their story boomed into a national news story because they were winning a few races. They did not win every race, but their bodies as Black trans girls were under the scrutiny of everyone,” says Alex Schmider, the associate director of trans representation at GLAAD and a producer of the film. “When we’re talking about that fairness argument, we don’t talk about the fact that someone like Michael Phelps, who produces less lactic acid in his body, has a physiological advantage. I think there’s a broader and more underlying issue of whose bodies we celebrate, whose bodies we regulate, whose bodies are considered powerful or not… when we really get to the root of it, it has to do with a lot of sexism and racism.”
TIME spoke with Yearwood, now a 19-year-old college student, about her high school track career, the wave of legislative attacks on trans rights and what people should know about being a trans athlete.
TIME: What first led you to competitive sports and athletics?
Yearwood: Ever since I was a little kid, my family has always encouraged [my siblings and I] to play sports. It doesn’t really matter what sport, we just had to be doing something. [I started running] in the seventh grade, and got into it seriously in high school.
What do you enjoy most about running track in particular?
How free it makes me feel. As I’m running, I’m so focused. That’s the only thing in my mind. There’s just nothing else, no distractions. I like how individualized the sport is, but also how much of a team and family there is. How much [the team] meant to me during what I went through in high school, and how much they were there to support me.
Why was that support so important?
<span style="font-weight: 400;">Is it fair to not let someone compete in the sport that they love, being themselves?</span>There was this one instance junior year where I didn’t want to run track anymore—because of what the media had said and all the negativity. I think I was just tired; I just kept having to defend my right to play a sport. I didn’t want to keep going through that. And while I tried to focus on the positives, that would get tiring as well. It got to a point where it was too much. [I thought that] I would rather save my own mental health and maybe do something else that didn’t involve all that negativity.
[My teammates] were always there to uplift me, and make me laugh—to pick me back up, to kind of remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing. At one practice, my friends were just like, ‘Andraya, This is a sport that you love. And you shouldn’t let other people decide if you continue to do it.’
One of my friends also brought up that this is a lot bigger than just me: This affects many other trans athletes who may be going through what I’m going through. I felt I couldn’t let them down either. I‘m very glad I stayed with it.
Mack, one of the other student athletes featured in Changing the Game, had to compete against cisgender girls because Texas state policy only allowed students to compete in the league of the sex they were assigned at birth. What should readers know about what it meant for you to run on the girls track team as a trans woman?
It meant everything. I was able to participate on a team where I knew I belonged. I know that if that wasn’t the case, and I had been put on the boys team, I wouldn’t be enjoying the sport.
The film depicts moments at track meets where adults would be yelling transphobic comments towards you, or that your participation “wasn’t fair.” What was it like to compete in that environment?
At first, it made me feel very apprehensive. But as I continued to run throughout my years, I learned to not really pay much attention to it. I mean, yes, people were going to say negative things. But giving them my attention is not going to do anything. It’s not going to have any positive outcome on me in my life. So as I got older, I tried to stop and kind of ignore it.
Is it fair to not let someone compete in the sport that they love, being themselves? It’s not fair to say you cannot run because of how you were born.
A federal judge in Connecticut recently tossed out a lawsuit that had been filed by four women who are cisgender challenging Connecticut’s transgender inclusion policy, which had named you. What was your reaction to that lawsuit?
I was a little taken aback. I didn’t think it was going to be taken that far. I mean, yes, there were petitions. And yes, people were saying things. But a lawsuit, that’s a pretty big deal. I tried to not let it get to me as much. But I remember the day of a meet, my trainer had just talked to me about it and how I felt. And she even told me, ‘just try to not let it get to you. You have a meet today. Just try to focus on running.’ I tried to, but I ended up false starting in my event.
Aa wave of anti-trans legislation is currently being introduced across the United States right now. What do you think, from your experience, the impact of these bills could be?
I think a lot of people maybe aren’t as educated on the topic, and they have this [idea] that trans athletes only play sports to win medals, to get first place, to bring that trophy home. I mean, that’s never the case. One misunderstood notion of trans individuals should not impact whether a kid can play soccer or not; athletes play sports because they love what they do. And I mean, attempting to take that away from kids—to take away their ability to participate in what they love to do, that’s just not right. And they shouldn’t have to go through that just because of who they are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why the NCAA Should Be Terrified of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s Concurrence
For years, critics of the college sports business model—which tends to enrich schools and administrators, but not the actual players—have relished the potential of this day: a Supreme Court ruling against the NCAA. But while today’s unanimous Court opinion on behalf of college athletes in NCAA v Alston is historic for momentum towards real real change in college sports, for the good stuff, go to Kavanaugh.
As in, the concurring opinion of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who took a sharp turn from the measured approach in criticizing NCAA arguments offered in the principal opinion penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. During oral arguments in the case, which questioned whether the NCAA was permitted to cap education-related benefits to college athletes—a district court ruled that it couldn’t, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision—Kavanaugh was particularly aggressive in his questioning of NCAA lawyers. “It does seem … schools are conspiring with competitors—agreeing with competitors, let’s say that—to pay no salaries for the workers who are making the school billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing,” Kavanaugh said during the March 31 proceedings. “And that just seems entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing.”
In his opinion, Kavanaugh seemed to invite more legal challenges to the NCAA’s caps on all forms of compensation for athletes, not just those tethered to education, which was the narrower focus of this particular Supreme Court case. “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”
Those words, from a Supreme Court justice no less, serve as a useful rallying cry, sure to be quoted by lawyers representing college athletes, and college athletes themselves, for years to come.
Not that a ruling that allows schools to offer athletes additional education-related benefits like scholarships for graduate school, internships, and computer equipment isn’t of great importance on its own. First, these items are intrinsically valuable to college athletes. And second, the timing of a Supreme Court victory for college athletes couldn’t be better, as they fight for additional economic rights. On July 1, state laws allowing athletes to profit from their own name and image in likeness (NIL) are set to go in effect in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. The NCAA has pushed for the Congress to pass a national NIL law by July 1, but that’s unlikely to happen: the NCAA is expected to vote on its own NIL legislation this week.
Although the Court did not rule on the rights of athletes to secure third-party sponsorships in NCAA vs Alston, it did strike down the NCAA’s continued reliance on language from a 1984 Supreme Court case to justify its commitment to curtailing compensation. In that case, NCAA v Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma—which pertained to the rights of sports conferences to negotiate their own television rights deals—Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority: “The NCAA plays a critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports. There can be no question but that it needs ample latitude to play that role, or that the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is entirely consistent with the goals of the Sherman Act.”
The Court, Gorsuch wrote, “could not agree” with the NCAA’s longstanding argument that, essentially, amateurism must be maintained because it says so (and that a 37-year-old Supreme Court opinion justifies this stance). “These remarks do not suggest that courts must reflexively reject all challenges to the NCAA’s compensation restrictions,” the Court writes in NCAA v Alston. “Given the sensitivity of antitrust analysis to market realities—and how much has changed in this market—we think it would be particularly unwise to treat an aside in Board of Regents as more than that. This Court may be ‘infallible only because we are final,’ … but those sorts of stray comments are neither.”
And the markets realities cannot be clearer. “At the center of this thicket of associations and rules sits a massive business,” Gorsuch writes, noting the $1.1 billion annual worth of the March Madness broadcast contract, and that the TV deal for the College Football Playoff is worth $470 million per year.” Those who run this enterprise profit in a different way than the student-athletes whose activities they oversee. The president of the NCAA earns nearly $4 million per year. Commissioners of the top conferences take home between $2 to $5 million. College athletic directors average more than $1 million annually. And annual salaries for top Division I college football coaches approach $11 million, with some of their assistants making more than $2.5 million.”
So while the Court was careful not to officially settle the debate about whether athletes have rights to all forms of compensation—agreeing with an appeals court that “the national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we.”— a reasonable takeaway from the Court’s seems clear: the current model is badly broken.
Kavanaugh makes things even clearer. “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels,” he writes in the concurring opinion. “But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that “customers prefer” to eat food from low-paid cooks. Law firms cannot conspire to cabin lawyers’ salaries in the name of providing legal services out of a “love of the law.” Hospitals cannot agree to cap nurses’ income in order to create a “purer” form of helping the sick. News organizations cannot join forces to curtail pay to reporters to preserve a “tradition” of public-minded journalism. Movie studios cannot collude to slash benefits to camera crews to kindle a “spirit of amateurism” in Hollywood.”
He also cites a brief, filed by a group of African-American Antitrust Lawyers, that squarely frames the issue as a civil rights one. “College presidents, athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners, and NCAA executives take in six- and seven-figure salaries,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Colleges build lavish new facilities. But the student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.”
The Supreme Court may not have “blown up” college sports with one swipe of the pen. But college athletes will soon get their fairer share thanks to the Court.
Brands Continue to Back Naomi Osaka, Showing an Evolution in How Sponsors Treat Athletes
Naomi Osaka is the world’s highest highest-paid female athlete. She has earned some $60 million over the past 12 months, according to Forbes, and is sponsored by a host of well-heeled companies, including blue-chip names like Nike, Nissan, Mastercard and TAG Heuer. When Osaka announced on May 31 that she was withdrawing from the French Open, citing a desire to tend to her mental health, sponsors lined up to publicly back her.
“Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience,” Nike said. “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritize personal health and well-being,” Mastercard tweeted. “We support her and admire her courage to address important issues, both on and off the court.”
Given that sponsors pay millions for athletes like Osaka to actively chase championships, their reaction to Osaka’s French Open decision marks the latest evolution in the relationship between athletes and sports organizations, and the sponsors that back them.
It’s not difficult to imagine a time in the not so distant past, when companies would have been reluctant to praise Osaka for dropping out of a Grand Slam. Michael Lynch, the former head for global sponsorship marketing at Visa, notes that five years ago, companies might not have rallied to support Osaka’s decision to back out of a Grand Slam event. “But today,” says Lynch, “more and more companies are liking the honesty and the openness of the athletes.”
Several things are driving this shift. In sports, Lynch cites a global soccer scandal as a flash point for companies speaking out and becoming more supportive of athletes who do so, too. Companies were once loathe to criticize sports organizations they supported, but the high-profile 2015 arrests of FIFA officials and other sports business leaders, for racketeering and other crimes, changed that game. Visa, for one, publicly demanded reform.
“Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement—and it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward,” Visa said in 2015. “Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.”
FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned and the organization instituted some governance reforms. Visa remains a FIFA sponsor. “I’ve always felt that it wasn’t our role as sponsors to get involved in administration and that sort of stuff,” says Lynch, who ran Visa’s global sponsorship marketing from 2007-2012. “But that’s not the case anymore. Companies are saying, ‘No, we do have to step up here. We are the company we keep.’”
More broadly, recent changes in the political climate have also forced companies to take social stands. After former President Donald Trump restricted the travel of foreign nationals from seven predominately Muslim countries to the U.S. in early 2017, a broad swath of large businesses—Google, Netflix, Airbnb, Starbucks—criticized the move. Corporations realized that taking stands wasn’t going to harm business. Far from it.
Nike aired an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick in 2018, implicitly supporting the exiled NFL player’s controversial decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police violence and social injustice. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Kaepernick said in the campaign. Calls for Nike boycotts quickly followed, with people burning shoes on social media. But sales boomed.
Gen-Z and younger millennial consumers, in particular, want to know where you stand. “The research will tell you that they’re significantly more likely to support a company supporting a cause they care about,” says Lynch. “You’re seeing that time and time again.”
And silence from sponsors could backfire.
“I don’t think it is acceptable anymore,” says Ricard Fort, former VP of global sports and entertainment partnerships at Coca-Cola, who left that position in March to start his own consulting firm. “Consumers are less tolerant to companies that don’t take positions. It is just the changing behavior of consumers. We expect more from companies today than we did 10 years ago.”
Plus, when companies sign athletes to endorsement deals, they now know they’re investing in the entire package. Osaka has shown a willingness to speak out on important issues: she took part in racial justice protests after George Floyd’s murder last year, and after winning the 2020 U.S. Open, Osaka wore masks honoring Black Americans killed in recent years.
“In this day and age when athletes are very vocal, and have access to their fans through social media, companies know that when they sign a sponsorship and endorsement contract with any athlete, you are not signing up for the athletic parts of their lives,” says Fort. “You’re signing up for who they are, what they believe.”
Osaka’s influence reaches far beyond one decision to withdraw from a tournament. And her choices could carry implications well past the tennis court—or any athletic arena. As companies rally to support Osaka prioritizing mental health over championships, they can be held accountable to support other sponsored athletes, and employees, facing mental health struggles too.
“The sports world can teach the business world a valuable lesson here,” says Lynch. “Because the business world has got to wake up on mental health too.”
As Opposition Mounts to the Tokyo Olympics, Here’s What It’s Like for Some of the First Athletes to Arrive
Clare Warwick has wanted to be an Olympian ever since she attended the Sydney Olympics as a spectator in 2000. Now she might get her chance. The 34-year-old and her teammates in the Australian softball squad touched down in Japan on Tuesday, making them some of the earliest competitors to arrive for the Tokyo Games.
“I remember watching a couple of my idols play,” says Warwick, the team’s shortstop. “I thought, ‘yeah I think I would like to give this a go,’ and that’s always been in the back of my mind over the years.”
The team’s arrival has been hailed as a major milestone for the Olympics, but it comes as critics call for the cancellation of Games amid Japan’s battle against a stubborn fourth COVID wave. On May 28, the Japanese government extended its COVID-19 state of emergency on Tokyo and several other areas until June 20. (The Olympics are scheduled to start on July 23.) Although new cases have declined in recent weeks, the country of 126 million is still recording around 3,000 cases a day.
The pandemic means this year’s Olympics will be unlike any other. Although there are some individual athletes already in the country—including runners from South Sudan—the Aussie Spirit softball team is one of the first squads to fly in. Their experience offers insight into what this year’s Games might look like for other athletes and support staff still intending to travel there from across the world.
“It’s not going to be the Olympics of the past and you know what? I think everyone’s made their peace with that,” Warwick tells TIME from the city of Ota, about 90 miles north of Tokyo, where the team is quarantining following their arrival in Japan. “If the Olympics goes ahead, that’s good enough for us and we’re happy to compete under any circumstances.”
COVID precautions at the Tokyo Olympics
Olympic COVID-19 protocols released in April emphasize frequent testing and isolation bubbles for athletes and coaches, if not strict quarantines or vaccinations. Fans from abroad have been banned, and an announcement on whether any Japanese spectators will be allowed is expected late this month.
The Australian softball team is taking additional precautions. All the team members have been vaccinated. They took a coronavirus test 72 hours before departing from Australia, another upon landing, and they’ll take a daily COVID-19 test while they’re in Japan. The team is now staying in a hotel under quarantine until Saturday, when they can start training outside—but other movements will be highly restricted.
Before the move to the Olympic Village on July 17, they’ll be confined to one floor of their hotel, where they’ll eat, sleep, attend meetings, and use a makeshift gym set up in a function room. They’ll only leave the hotel to travel by bus to training sessions or friendly matches. They will practice social distancing and wear masks most of the time.
“We know the eyes of the world are on us, because we’re the only team of any sport of any country in Japan at the moment, besides the locals, so we have to do everything right,” David Pryles, the CEO of Softball Australia, tells TIME.
The players say that they’re happy to comply with the restrictions. Warwick, a high-school teacher from the Australian capital of Canberra, says its a bit of an adjustment wearing a mask all of the time but “This is an opportunity for us, and it’s a massive opportunity, and everyone in the team…understands exactly what they have to do, and why they’re doing it.”
Warwick has visited Japan, and the city of Ota, several times before for training and competitions. But this time she says she plans to keep herself busy inside the hotel grading papers, talking with family and friends back home via Zoom, and catching up on her reading and Netflix. She says that several of the players have brought Nintendo Switch devices, and they’ve been competing against each other in Mario Kart.
“I’m going to miss being around the people and … going to get our favorite coffee and our favorite meals in the evening,” she says, adding that one of the things she likes to eat most in Japan is okonomiyaki, a savory pancake.
Opposition to the Tokyo Olympics
Detractors say that it’s too risky to hold the Games during a global pandemic. A Japanese doctors union warns that the Olympics—at which 15,000 athletes from over 200 different territories are expected—could be a super-spreader event and might bring global variants of the virus to Tokyo. Fears have been exacerbated by the country’s slow vaccine rollout: only about 9% of people in Japan have received one shot.
More than 70% of Japanese want the Olympics to be canceled or postponed, according to an April poll by Kyodo News. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, an official sponsor of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, has called for the Games to be cancelled. Prominent Japanese have joined in the debate. Tennis star Naomi Osaka says she’s conflicted over whether the Games should go ahead because they might put people at risk, while SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son has expressed concern, saying the country had “a lot to lose.” Olympic torch runners have been heckled by protesters, and about 10,000 volunteers have dropped out, presumably over virus fears. Training camps across the country have meanwhile been cancelled—either by worried local officials or sports teams themselves.
Despite the opposition, officials have insisted the Olympics will go ahead. A senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last week that the event will be held “barring Armageddon.”
So the Australian softball team, which won three bronze medals and one silver in previous Olympics, is preparing to go for Gold. “Whilst being told the Games are on, we have to prepare the best we can to be podium-ready,” says Pryles, of Softball Australia.
For now, members of Aussie Spirit are focused on getting over their jetlag and getting into a good sleep routine, says Warwick. Once out of quarantine, they’ll play a series of warm-up games against Japanese softball clubs and Japan’s national team. Of the 23 Australian players now training in Japan, a team of 15 will be then picked to compete in the Olympics.
Pryles says that only two of the present squad members have played in the Olympics before. The sport made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1996, but it didn’t return until 2008 (when Warwick was a reserve player). It also won’t be included in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. So, for many of the players, including Warwick, this is the only shot at Olympic glory.
“I’m sort of at the end of my career. I played my first international game in Japan, and I’d love to play my last one here in an Olympic Games,” she says.
Pryles sympathizes. “Their lifelong dream is right there on the doorstep. They’ll do what it takes.”
‘This Will 100% Save Somebody’s Life.’ Athletes See a Turning Point for Mental Health After Naomi Osaka Takes a Stand at the French Open
After Michael Phelps heard on Monday that Naomi Osaka had pulled out of the French Open, and he read her Instagram message explaining why—Osaka cited “feeling vulnerable and anxious” in Paris, and revealed that she has suffered from “long bouts” of depression since defeating Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open—a bunch of thoughts rushed into his head. Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all-time, winner of 23 Olympic gold medals. But no amount of winning staved off his depression and contemplation of suicide.
Phelps, who has gone public with his struggles and emerged as one of the foremost mental health advocates in sports, could sense that Osaka’s revelations, and decision to forgo a shot at another Grand Slam title to take a mental health break, were a big deal. Osaka is a certified global superstar, the highest-paid female athlete on the planet with a huge social media imprint and endorsements from brands like Nike, Nissan and Louis Vuitton. “I felt very happy after reading her message because she’s showing that vulnerability, she’s showing a side of her that we haven’t seen before, and that’s so powerful,” Phelps tells TIME. “It’s definitely going to be a game-changer in mental health moving forward.”
He read some of backlash against Osaka, who had announced she was declining to participate in post-match press conferences at Roland Garros, mentioning the potential mental harm of these exchanges with reporters. “I was almost shocked in a way,” says Phelps, “especially with everything I feel like the world has learned about mental health over the last year.” But the next day, Phelps started seeing more articles sympathetic to Osaka. “That does bring a smile to my face,” he says. “Because yes, then we are understanding that this is something that, it doesn’t matter if you’re number one in the world or the average Joe, anybody can go through this. It is real. I hope this is the breaking point of really being able to open up and save more lives.”
That hope isn’t all that outlandish. In recent years, professional athletes like Phelps have helped de-stigmatize conversations surrounding mental health, having shared their struggles with the public and defying shopworn sports conventions to show no signs of vulnerability, to just power through. Phelps was an executive producer on 2020 HBO documentary, Weight of Gold, which explored the mental health struggles that often befall Olympic athletes after the Games. In the NBA, Kevin Love revealed he suffered a panic attack during a game; DeMar DeRozan, another NBA All-Star, shared his battles with depression. In baseball, Zack Greinke spoke up about his social anxiety; NHL player Robin Lehner opened up about his bipolar disorder; gymnast Aly Raisman has been candid about her anxiety.
Through the size of her platform, however, and her decision to choose well-being over pursuit of a Grand Slam title, Osaka offers the promise of bringing mental health awareness—both inside and outside of sports—to an entirely new level. “It’s groundbreaking,” says Lisa Bonta Sumii, a therapist with Galea Health, a company that connects athletes with mental health providers. “She has prioritized mental health, and has said so. And that’s a great example.”
Osaka’s move also marks the latest step in her stunning personal evolution. Few could have imagined that in less than three years, the shy then-20-year-old who apologized to Serena Williams, through tears, after beating her at the 2018 U.S. Open, would find her voice as both a social activist—at last year’s U.S. Open, which she won, Osaka wore masks honoring seven Black Americans killed in recent years—and proponent of mental health. “It goes to show that you don’t have to be this charismatic really extroverted person to be an advocate,” says Bonta Sumii. “She’s said minimal things here. It’s the act. Our behavior can be a form of advocacy.”
‘We’re human beings’
Many experts say that when Osaka announced she would not participate in French Open press conferences, she was by no means being “petulant” or a “diva,” as some critics chirped. “To me, this looked like a woman who was setting a boundary and saying I’m not going to put myself in those situations where I’m likely to experience increased risk of harm for my mental health,” says Katherine Tamminen, associate professor of sport psychology at the University of Toronto. In taking this stance, Osaka offers a valuable lesson for anyone experiencing anxiety. “For all of us, it’s important to take a look at these different things going on in our lives and say, you know, here are the things I’m willing to work with, and here’s where I’m not,” says Tamminem.
A common reaction to stories of athlete mental health struggles is puzzlement. How can someone with a career most people envy possible be so stressed? But athlete anxiety is more common than many people realize. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the reported prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders in elite male athletes in team sports varies from 5% for burnout and alcohol use to 45% for anxiety and depression. Alexi Pappas grew up in the United States and ran for Greece in the 2016 Rio Olympics, setting a national record in the 10K. After achieving her Olympic dream, she fell into a debilitating funk. “I felt that the way the world saw me didn’t match the way that I felt,” says Pappas. “And that’s the most scary feeling in the world.”
Anxiety caused Mardy Fish, a former top-10 U.S. tennis player, to drop out of a U.S. Open match against Roger Federer in 2012. “It’s incredibly naive to think that that someone that just makes a lot of money or is very successful at their career, doesn’t have stress,” says Fish. “Everyone is entitled to their own stresses.”
Phelps, who has had more success than nearly any athlete in history, says winning cannot erase your emotions. “We might be number one in the world and we might be one of the greatest of all time, but we’re human beings,” he says. “We deal and we feel with emotions just like you do. And we go through depression or anxiety or struggle with other things, just like everybody else does. Just because we’re number one in the world doesn’t make us invincible.”
Pappas, who is now partnering with the online therapist directory Monarch, sees Osaka as someone who can help us move away from the win-at-all-costs ethos in sports. “This could be epiphanal,” says Pappas. “It takes a certain type of person, a certain type of energy to be like ‘Oh wow, let’s never go back.’ And we’ve seen that in other things over time, when we’ve never gone back to this, we’ve never gone back to that. And perhaps this is one of those turning points where we only go forward and forgive ourselves.”
Phelps is retired from the pool. But as the Tokyo Olympics approach, with Osaka still the face of the Games for the host country, he’ll be watching from a new perspective. He predicts that Osaka, having spoken her truth, will feel a great sense of relief. And she’ll help others find their truths too. “I know how I struggled, for years, of not wanting to dive into the stuff I was holding onto,” says Phelps. “When I opened up and really started talking about it, I felt freer. This will 100% save somebody’s life. That’s something that’s bigger than we can ever imagine.”
Four-Time Tennis Grand Slam Champion Naomi Osaka Has Quit the French Open, Citing Anxiety
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday and wrote on Twitter that she would be taking a break from competition, a dramatic turn of events for a four-time Grand Slam champion who said she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
Osaka’s agent, Stuart Duguid, confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that the world’s No. 2-ranked tennis player was pulling out before her second-round match at the clay-court tournament in Paris.
The stunning move came a day after Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and moved with her family to the U.S. at age 3, was fined $15,000 for skipping the postmatch news conference after her first-round victory at the French Open. She also was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued with her intention — which Osaka revealed last week on Twitter — to not “do any press during Roland Garros.”
She framed the matter as a mental health issue, saying that it can create self-doubt to have to answer questions after a loss.
“First and foremost we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland Garros is unfortunate,” French tennis federation president Gilles Moretton said Monday. “We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery. And we look forward to having Naomi in our tournament next year.”
Moretton said the four major tournaments, and the professional tennis tours, “remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we always have.”
In Monday’s post, Osaka spoke about dealing with depression since the 2018 U.S. Open, which she won by beating Serena Williams in a final filled with controversy.
“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,” Osaka wrote, explaining that speaking with the media makes her anxious.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”
She continued: “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. … I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
Williams was asked about Osaka on Monday after winning her opening match in the first scheduled night session in French Open history.
“I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. … I’ve been in those positions,” Williams said. “We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick; other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best that she can.”
Osaka has never been past the third round on the French Open’s red clay. It takes seven victories to win a Grand Slam title, which she has done four times at hard-court tournaments: the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2020; the Australian Open in 2019 and this February.
“Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she wrote.
Tennis players are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so. The maximum fine of $20,000 is not a big deal to Osaka, the world’s highest-earning female athlete thanks to endorsement contracts totaling tens of millions of dollars.
“Mental health and awareness around it is one of the highest priorities to the WTA,” the women’s tennis tour said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman. “We have invested significant resources, staffing and educational tools in this area for the past 20-plus years and continue to develop our mental health support system for the betterment of the athletes and the organization. We remain here to support and assist Naomi in any way possible and we hope to see her back on the court soon.”
Other players, notably 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and No. 1-ranked Ash Barty, have said they respect Osaka’s right to take a stance but explained that they consider speaking to reporters part of the job.
After Osaka’s post Monday, several athletes in tennis and other sports tweeted their support.
Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam champion, wrote: “I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi- we are all pulling for you!”
Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry wrote that it was “impressive taking the high road when the powers that be dont protect their own. major respect.”
AP Sports Writers Sam Petrequin in Paris and Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.
Naomi Osaka Fined $15K for Not Speaking at French Open
PARIS — Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 at the French Open for skipping a post-match news conference after her first-round victory Sunday — and threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with stiffer penalties, including being defaulted, if she continues to avoid meeting with the media.
The fine will come out of Osaka’s prize money and was announced in a joint statement from the president of the French tennis federation, Gilles Moretton, and the heads of the other majors.
The statement said Osaka has been “advised” 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.”
Citing the rule book, the statement notes that “tougher sanctions” from “repeat violations” could include default — being disqualified from the tournament — and “the trigger of a major offense investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.”
Osaka vowed in a Twitter post Wednesday she would not be doing the news conferences at Roland Garros. That didn’t mean she was able to entirely elude any question about her problems playing on red clay.
Osaka returned to Roland Garros after skipping the trip last time, turning in a mistake-filled 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig at Court Philippe Chatrier on Day 1 in Paris.
After the 2020 French Open was pushed to a September start with a limit of 1,000 spectators per day because of the coronavirus outbreak, things were closer to normal Sunday: It was a sun-kissed May day and more than 5,000 fans permitted, with a delay of only a week this year due to COVID-19 concerns.
While not quite back to its packed pre-pandemic self, Roland Garros did bubble with cheers and tennis.
Other results perhaps were more newsworthy than a straight-set win by the No. 2-ranked Osaka — three-time major champion Angelique Kerber’s third straight first-round loss in Paris, for example — but the events that unfolded after the Japanese superstar’s match were of high interest.
That’s because of Osaka’s stated intention to stay away from media sessions. What remained unclear was whether she would participate in the perfunctory exchange of pleasantries with on-court “interviewers” who lob softball questions so spectators can hear something from match winners.
As it turned out, Osaka did go ahead with that chat with former player Fabrice Santoro, who is hardly a journalist and kindly offered to help Osaka by carrying the flowers she was given by the tournament.
Santoro actually did raise the topic of the event’s surface, noting that Osaka’s Grand Slam titles only have come on hard courts.
She has won the Australian Open twice, including this year, and the U.S. Open twice, including last year. But she never has been past the third round at the French Open.
“I would say it’s a work in progress,” Osaka said about her game on clay. “Hopefully the more I play, the better it will get.”
Osaka wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday that she was not going to participate in the standard back-and-forth with the media in Paris — the sort of thing athletes in various sports do as a matter of course. She framed it as a mental health issue, saying that it creates self-doubt to have to answer questions after a loss.
Players at Grand Slam tournaments are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so; refusing is punishable by fines of up to $20,000, which is not much of a big deal to Osaka, the world’s highest-earning female athlete thanks to endorsement deals totaling tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s her own choice. I think she’s capable of making her own choices and obviously she will do always what’s best for her,” Tig said. “I think that’s what’s happening now. It’s her choice of doing what she feels is best for her.”
As for her impression of Osaka’s on-court ability on clay, Tig offered this assessment: “If she wins, she’ll get used to it. She can play as good on clay as she plays on hard courts.”
Osaka showed how Sunday: controlling points with her attacking game. She won 31 of 35 points when her first serve landed in and accumulated 39 winners — more than twice as many as Tig’s 18.
Osaka next faces 102nd-ranked Ana Bogdan, who swept aside Italian qualifier Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-1, 6-3.
The 26th-seeded Kerber was beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Anhelina Kalinina, a qualifier from Ukraine ranked 139th and making her tournament debut.
Roland Garros thus remains the only Grand Slam title that Kerber hasn’t won: She was the champion at the Australian Open and U.S. Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2018.
Also, 2019 Australian Open semifinalist and 2020 French Open quarterfinalist Danielle Collins defeated Wang Xiyu 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
In men’s action, 12th seeded Pablo Carreno Busta beat Norbert Gombos 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, and 27th-seeded Fabio Fognini broke a racket along the way to eliminating French wild-card entry Gregoire Barrere 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
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