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Time to redefine ‘toughness’ after Osaka drops out of French Open

Naomi Osaka of Japan looks on before being interviewed on court after winning her First Round match against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania during Day One of the 2021 French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka shocked the sports world this week by withdrawing from the French Open following an earlier announcement that she would be skipping media interviews. She revealed that she has experienced depression and anxiety, and that speaking to the media does not help.

Osaka’s withdrawal has spurred a lot of conversations about mental health and athletes, and 710 ESPN Seattle‘s Stacy Jo Rost joined KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to share her perspective.

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As someone who covers sports, Rost admits she was stunned by Osaka’s initial announcement.

“I was surprised because I hadn’t heard Naomi talk about this before,” she said. “I love Naomi Osaka, I think she’s fantastic for the world of tennis. I also think that she did a really good job in her first explanation of explaining why she was choosing not to participate in press conferences and interviews during the tournament.”

“She said because it was her mindset that she felt it would be — I’m paraphrasing — she felt it would be better for her mental health to avoid those press conferences,” Rost added.

When Osaka issued a second statement after withdrawing from the 2021 French Open, Rost says she gave even more detail and had said that she reached out to the officials before doing any of this.

“[Osaka has] been dealing with depression since, I think she said 2019 or ’18. She has found that doing these [interviews] just don’t put her in the right state of mind and don’t help her,” Rost said.

Rost says she’s not surprised, however, by the reactions.

“It’s been great to see, I think overwhelming support, but I am not surprised by — I think particularly being in sports radio — some sports listeners saying, ‘well, then why are you in the sport?'” Rost said.

“I think that with athletes in particular, there is an expectation of toughness and of grit and perseverance. How many times do we hear those words preached? And quite honestly, you do have to … put yourself mentally, physically in another place,” she added. “Though that makes us — I’m saying us like the general us — misinterpret what tough is. Maybe it is really brave and really tough for Naomi Osaka to come out and say this, putting herself up for criticism. What’s our definition of toughness? That’s actually, I think, pretty bold.”

Rost believes the reaction to Osaka’s decision is much better now than it would have been 20 years ago, or even five years ago as host Ursula Reutin pointed out, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

“I think that it is tougher at times for male athletes to do this because there is already a stigma that men should not want help for mental health or help for those things. And I think that we are slightly more accepting of women asking for that, though still very critical, particularly of female athletes asking for that, or female, women in empowered roles,” Rost said.

“Which is unfair for both parties. So I think we still have a ways to go,” she added.

Unfortunately, opening up about mental health issues, especially for athletes, is still often seen as “soft.”

“I don’t want to use that word and that description. But from the reactions I see, it’s seen as soft to do that, which isn’t true,” Rost said about athletes and public figures being honest about their mental health. “And I mean, Brandon Marshall, wide receiver, very briefly was with the Seahawks, talked about, openly, about having borderline personality disorder.”

“He could man-handle anyone that wanted to call him soft,” she added. “It’s very ironic to me always that people want to criticize athletes for being open about a mental health thing that they’re dealing with when it takes a lot to admit that publicly. And secondly, I promise you these people are mentally and physically tougher than you are, tougher than most of us.”

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Rost says it’s also encouraging to see Osaka be honest and speak out about her mental health, especially as a popular and young athlete.

“There are real consequences that can be positive — positive outcomes to young athletes, prominent athletes coming out and saying, ‘I’m dealing with this,’ because it models a behavior of I can be tough and also I can display vulnerability in talking about this,” she said. “And that’s important behavior to model.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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