During the French Open tennis tournament last month, the No. 2 ranked female player in the world, Naomi Osaka, posted on social media that she would not participate in meetings with the press. She cited mental health reasons, revealing that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” and anxiety since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.
She was immediately condemned by officials of the French, U.S. and Australian Opens, and in a joint statement, Grand Slam organizers slapped Osaka with a $15,000 penalty and threatened her with additional sanctions if she continued to refuse post-match interviews. Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, defended those actions: “I think we did very, very well,” he said. “The goal was not to penalize her. It was to say clearly: Here’s the rule.” (By which he meant a contractual obligation to meet with the press.)
Well, tournament organizers who try to apply “the rule” to Ms. Osaka in the United States may run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with physical or mental health disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in normal activities – to enjoy employment, purchase goods and services, and so on. It requires that employers and others offer to people who are impaired a “reasonable accommodation,” which is defined as “a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done.”
But besides conforming to the requirements of the law, all businesses should consider their moral obligations, even if it costs revenue. Athletes’ availability to the media may be critical to the business of sports, but if society’s athletic organizations can’t model good sportsmanship, who can?
As to Ms. Osaka’s claim to disability, we know only what we have read in the press, but her willingness to forgo potentially lucrative tournaments and rich endorsements that go with fame suggests that she is, indeed, suffering a legitimate infirmity that should exempt her from having to grant interviews. It would behoove tournament organizers, whether bound by the ADA or not, to offer a reasonable accommodation to her. It could consist, for example, of limiting her obligation to a single interview at the very end of each tournament; limiting the interviewer to a single pool reporter; allowing a therapy dog to accompany her; or maybe even having the “interview” consist simply of a short conversation between Osaka and her coach.
A similar example of another sports business failing to understand moral obligations is the National Basketball Association kowtowing to China over team executives or players posting or making public statements. Other corporate entities have also changed policies to mollify the Chinese government and avoid risking political backlash in the huge and growing Chinese market. However, businesses that fail to understand this principle may face the wrath of fans or customers who disapprove of the business’s greedy and exploitative practices.
Absent some sort of rapprochement, the business of tennis could lose one of its best and most exciting competitors, which would be a net loss to everyone. Instead of using inflexible rules to fine or exclude Ms. Osaka, why not champion her ability to excel at the sport despite her obstacles?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, played varsity tennis at South Philadelphia High School. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.