When a story breaks in your area of research, it’s a strange rush.
My first instinct last week is that I should say and write something about what’s going on. After all, I have spent years of my life studying this subject. I am a lowercase expert on the subject. This is what I do.
My second instinct is to withdraw into the world of my books and my magazine articles, to say that I need to think more deeply about it. And while I think that’s true, I also feel like it’s an escape. It is an excuse for the turtle, to avoid having to put a stake in the ground, to avoid the debate.
It is rare, when what you have dedicated your professional life to becomes the main news of the day. And this is only a tenth of what people who study coronaviruses, pandemics, communicable diseases have gone through all day.
And then I think about it this way: What if, instead of a should, this was half of? What if, instead of just dealing with this in the quiet of my own mind, it played out on a world stage? What if, instead of this text file and conversations in the car with my incredibly patient wife, I had to talk about this in a room full of people asking me questions and broadcasting my answers live to the world?
On one hand, Naomi Osaka feels like one huge story. It feels like a turning point in the history and practice of sports journalism. This is a vibrant athlete at the top of her game, a young woman of color whose face is on every billboard and bus stop in New York City, facing the sports-industrial complex head-on?
On the other, he’s an athlete in a sport that most Americans care about no more than three times a year.
On the one hand, I understand the argument that press conferences are less than ideal vehicles for journalist-source relations and good interviews. On the other hand, 99 percent of all sports media press conferences are harmless at worst and provide information to readers at best.
On one hand, I sympathize with the reporters working on the French Open who aren’t trying to take down Naomi Osaka but just want quotes from her so they can file their stories on time. I sympathize with the argument that everyone has things in their lives they don’t like to do, but you do them anyway because that’s what it means to be an adult in the world.
On the other hand, I have less and less patience for a world in which older white men can command a young woman of color to obey. I have little patience for a world where we claim to care about athletes beyond their game on the court, but punish a player who tries to take care of himself.
What the conversation and the commentary here are looking for are answers. A hero and a villain and a story. And the research doesn’t really offer any. What the research shows is that access to sources is an integral part of how all journalists, including sportswriters, do their jobs in the United States and has been for generations. Sports journalists see themselves as the voice of the fans, and by having access to interview players, journalists act as representatives of the fans. This is a fundamental journalistic value.
But that doesn’t get us going. These are media practices created for a time of scarcity, not plenty. These are media practices constructed by white reporters and editors that reflect an unbalanced power dynamic. These are media practices created to help reporters do their jobs and, by extension, help them and their companies make money.
This story gets to the heart of power relations in sports, the gendered nature of sports coverage, the racial nature of sports coverage, our understanding of mental health.
But, it’s also about a person in a tennis tournament…