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Naomi Osaka Was Right to Stand Up to the Tennis Bosses

The standoff between Naomi Osaka and the French Open is more than a sports drama — it’s about how much control workers have over their own labor. And we could all learn a thing or two from her gutsy decision to draw a line in the sand.

Naomi Osaka during the women's singles first-round match at the French Open tennis tournament on May 30, 2021, in Paris, France. (Aurelien Morissard / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka, we learned this week, will not work under certain conditions. One of the world’s best tennis players, Osaka has been fined $15,000 and excluded from the French Open for declining to participate in post-match press conferences. Osaka’s stated reason for this work refusal is a desire to preserve her mental health — she explained on Instagram that speaking to the press makes her deeply anxious and that she has struggled with depression since 2018. So, like Bartleby, she has concluded that she “would prefer not to.”

One way to follow the Osaka–French Open brouhaha is as a personal drama, which is certainly how the corporate media presents it: Is Osaka right or wrong, brave or spoiled? Are you, the media consumer, for her or against her? Osaka’s critics point out that she is contractually obligated to do the conferences. Supporters fire back that the superstar is completing the main part of her job by playing tennis and that the conferences are tiresome — a sop to lazy sportswriters unwilling to do their jobs properly.

But the issues at the heart of the standoff are about more than Osaka the individual or tennis or the utility of athlete press conferences. They are about how much control workers have over their own labor, how much of one’s self one is willing to hand over for others to trade upon, how we care to be known by others, and the division between work and nonwork.

The Grand Slam family of tournaments came down hard on Osaka, threatening to bar her not only from the French Open but also from the US Open and Wimbledon if she does not relent. No doubt, there’s a racist, sexist aspect to the draconian reaction. The patronizing remarks of tournament director Guy Forget are more apropos of a petulant child than someone hurt by their work: “We will see how she behaves. I don’t know what her attitude will be in the coming days.” But fundamentally, those running the Slams also know that if Osaka can dictate the terms of her participation, other players might start making their own demands — and from the tournaments’ perspective, that’s unthinkable.

While no one on the business side of things would be pleased to see Osaka, a bankable star, leave the big tournaments, the Slams know that in the long run, it would be better for them to sacrifice her than sacrifice their prerogatives. That calculation only holds, however, if other players stay silent. Should they express their support for Osaka in significant numbers, the Slams may have to bend. The tournaments are betting that most players will choose not to make waves — and so far, they have been right.

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, reactions to Osaka in the sports press have been cool to openly hostile. Understandably, no one enjoys being snubbed. And perhaps there is some resentment at Osaka’s ability to opt out. After all, journalists who earn much less than she does are strongly encouraged, if not required, to work beyond their main tasks of reporting and maintain off-hours social media presences. Unlike Osaka, many of them could not absorb a $15,000 fine for declining to post after their articles are filed.

But is showing up to a press conference really part of Osaka’s job? Does it have to be? Who really benefits from her presence? Who pays for it, and with what? Osaka’s silence raises questions that many athletes, especially young ones, may not have bothered to ask. Other workers might ask these questions too. What is, and isn’t, the job? What am I, and what am I not, willing to suffer for a particular role, and what are the boundaries of my job?

Beyond these queries, Osaka’s decision has broader philosophical implications for how we manage ourselves on and off the job. Following her example, we might also ask, How much of myself am I willing to craft to others’ specifications and then give away? What is left of me when I do so?

When workers are implored to “bring your whole self to work,” most know not to take the exhortation at face value. They understand that what is really meant is they should mold their actual selves into something politically and socially unproblematic — and bring that persona to work. Colin Kaepernick, to name just one example, declined to adjust his self accordingly and paid the price.

But smoothing out one’s rough edges, overcoming anxiety, and stifling one’s politics is exhausting and psychologically taxing. For many people, it’s possible (sometimes barely) to manage this tightrope walk during working hours. For someone like Osaka, whose work persona is beamed around the globe 24/7, it could be untenable or simply not worth the distress it brings.

However perfectly or imperfectly Osaka may have handled one transaction with the French Open, it’s a rare twenty-three-year-old who is this lucid about who is on their side and who is not, and who knows the value of privacy and interiority. Osaka seems to have made the calculation that giving up some essential part of herself to tournament organizers and the press pool is a losing proposition. They could never repay her enough for such a sacrifice, even if they wanted to.

We could all learn a thing or two from that.