What Is Sports Media's Role When It Comes to Mental Health?
Why this matters
As athletes take a stand for their mental wellbeing, many have pointed to media interactions and news conferences as the cause of increased stress and anxiety.
James Blake remembers his first major news conference.
It was the third round of the 2001 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Blake, then a relative newcomer on the ATP Tour, found himself the subject of an on-court racial comment from eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt.
Blake, who lost the match in five sets, also suffered heat stroke and needed two bags of intravenous fluids. But immediately after the match, he walked from Louis Armstrong Stadium to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Escorted by four security guards, he was told that he had to speak to the media.
Exhausted, Blake sat in front of a room of reporters and answered questions about Hewitt’s comment.
“They joked after I was done that it was trial by fire,” said Blake, now an ESPN commentator. “That one was really strange because my body had failed me that day. I was running on fumes. There were so many emotions going through me, and (talking with the media) wasn’t my first priority.”
The relationship between athletes and sports journalists has always been complicated. At times, it is confrontational. At times, to quote novelist James Michener, it is “one of the happiest relationships in American society.”
At the 2021 French Open, a new chapter in that relationship began when second-seeded Naomi Osaka announced that, to protect her mental health, she would not be taking part in the mandatory post-match news conferences. After the ensuing controversy (and a $15,000 fine), she withdrew from the French Open and later Wimbledon.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes (sic) mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote on her personal social media accounts. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
Osaka’s decision came at a time when many athletes had been talking more openly about their own struggles with mental health. But what made Osaka’s story stand out is that it was the first time an athlete publicly and explicitly connected mental health and media obligations – suggesting that the latter could be harmful for the former.
In talking to athletes, journalists, researchers, and mental health professionals, the general sense is that the Osaka story is about a specific situation and not endemic to the entire sports media industrial complex.
“I think that this was somebody who was crying for help and kind of reaching out in all kinds of different directions,” said Helene Elliott, a longtime sports writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “I think that her saying that the interviews were causing her pain to reflect on losses, I mean, I had participated in press conferences with her before, and that had never really been an issue. She's been engaging. She'd been thoughtful. She'd been intelligent, reflective.”
It's a complex issue on a number of levels. To say this is an issue between sports media and athletes treats both groups as monoliths rather than individual people. Some players hate talking to reporters. Some tolerate it. Some love it. Reporters are working on all types of stories, from quick game stories to longer features.
But the Osaka story, and the widespread conversations about athlete mental health, give us a chance to reexamine how the professional relationship between athletes and the media, how the work routines of sports journalists impact athletes and how that relationship could be healthier and better for all involved.
The Athlete Perspective
In his 2009 memoir Open, tennis star Andre Agassi described his struggles with figuring out his own identity early in his career while being interviewed by journalists.
“To make matters worse, journalists write down exactly what I say, while I’m saying it, word for word, as if this represented the literal truth. I want to tell them, ‘Hold it, don’t write that down, I’m only thinking out loud here,’” Agassi wrote. “You’re asking about the subject I understand least – me. Let me edit myself, contradict myself. But there isn’t time. They need black-and-white answers, good and evil, simple plot lines in seven hundred words, and then they’re on to the next thing.”
The life of an elite athlete is incredibly stressful. Their careers are, first and foremost, dependent on their bodies, and so there is the stress of staying healthy. The performance demands of games, matches, and meets are incredibly high, and the margin between winning and losing is often imperceptibly small.
Dr. Andrew Wolanin, a sports psychologist in the Philadelphia area, said that while media obligations are rarely one of the top sources of anxiety for athletes, those obligations are another stressor.
“Imagine being fantastic on the soccer field, you do your thing, and then in order to actually complete that performance, now you have to go talk to 10 people who are asking you questions of whatever they feel like asking you” all while it is impossible to know how your answers will be received, Wolanin said. “They’re not trained to do that, so it can actually be significantly more performance anxiety.”
Some athletes, like Blake and former National Football League defensive back Donte Whitner, said they enjoyed generally good relationships with the media during their pro careers. Whitner credited Jim Tressel, his coach at Ohio State, with preparing him to deal with reporters.
“He really made it a huge emphasis to make sure that everybody that was coached under him, and especially the guys who were going to deal with the media (or) have a chance to get drafted, that they understood everything when it came to dealing with the media,” said Whitner, who played for four NFL teams. “How you want to take time to calm down after a game, or if a big situation happened or big loss, how that moment, you'll never get that back, so you really want to calm yourself down.”
Virtually all major sports have agreements with reporter groups (which are the basis of most media-athlete interactions) to provide a mandatory cooling-off period of at least 10 minutes postgame before reporters can interview players. But even with that time, being interviewed is stressful. Wolanin pointed out that a news conference is really a type of public speaking, which is one of humans’ most widely held fears.
Also, a big mantra for athletes is controlling what they can control. Being interviewed is the opposite of that.
“You're kind of being put on the spot every time you have to talk to somebody, and you don't know where it's going to go,” Wolanin said.
Even players with good relationships with reporters have conflicts from time to time. There is the “you never played the game” attitude that journalists hate but is real among athletes. Whitner said he clashed with media in Buffalo, New York, in part because he was blamed for defensive struggles that were the result of the team’s style of play.
For the most part, players are OK with critical coverage of their in-game performances. But when reporters start bringing up their personal lives or off-court issues, that’s a line they don’t want crossed. Blake said the only time he had an issue with sports media coverage was when they reported on his father’s illness.
“My thoughts were, I put myself in a situation where I’m doing something publicly, anything I do on the court is fair game,” Blake said. “If you want to write my forehand stinks, my backhand stinks, I should have changed this, I should have changed that, all of that’s 100 percent fair game.
“I think a lot of people want to paint some of the media as if they are trying to get you or they're against you or for you. I understand they're for the most part just doing their job.”
The Journalist Perspective
A central part of the job journalists do is talking to sources. Writing about current events by talking to the people involved has been core to the profession since early in the 20th century.
The belief in the importance of access has become stronger among journalists in the past two decades, as digital and social media have not only strained the business models of sports journalism but also given fans and players their own platforms. One way journalists are able to differentiate their work is by their ability to interview players and coaches.
“If you’re just a sports fan sitting at home, and something happens – you see a mistake or you see a great play or a pitcher throws a curveball to a hitter who’s known for hitting curveballs – well, aren’t you sitting there going ‘What was he thinking?’” Elliott said. “Well, guess what? That’s what (reporters) can ask. You can’t ask that while you’re watching, but we can.”
How and where these interviews happen differ from team to team, league to league, sport to sport. The ideal situation for most reporters is an open locker room, where all players who decide to stay in the room are fair game for journalists to approach for a conversation.
Teams prefer news conferences, which allow them to control which players speak to reporters, who asks questions, and how many questions are asked. COVID-19 protocols allowed teams to place more restrictions on reporters’ access to teams, and many restrictions are still in place.
The truth is that most reporters don’t like news conferences, either. But if it’s the news conference or nothing, they have little choice to protect the access they do have.
A group of researchers from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia are conducting a study into the meta-journalistic discourse – that is, when journalists write about journalism – around the Osaka story. The first results, which were presented at the International Association for Communication and Sport Summit in March, suggest that English and French journalists framed their coverage of Osaka in part by defending the news conference as a necessary part of reporting.
“People don’t necessarily like (the news conference), but at the same time, I think there’s the uncertainty of ‘How are we going to replace it?’” said University of Florida researcher Dr. Roxane Coche, one of the study’s authors. “This is something that is being put into question, something that is not perfect but somewhat works. And for journalists, it’s being put into question with no solutions offered.”
What Comes Next?
The easy answer would be to get rid of news conferences. After all, if reporters don’t like them and players don’t need them, then what’s the point? Especially when they create the unavoidable power dynamics of a group of largely older white men interrogating young women or younger black athletes who grew up around violence and poverty.
“We are not the good guys here,” Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian in 2021. “We are no longer the power. And one of the world’s best athletes would literally rather quit a Grand Slam tournament than have to talk to the press. Rather than scrutinizing what that says about her, it might be worth asking what that says about us.”
But the reporters and former athletes interviewed for this article didn’t feel doing away with news conferences was realistic. Blake said that he was concerned that some players who view news conferences as a nuisance would start using mental health as an excuse to duck their obligations.
There’s also the problem of scale. Think of Super Bowl media week. Imagine a world where, instead of one big press conference, athletes like Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford have to do hundreds of individual interviews. That might be more stressful, not less.
Additionally, the millions and billions of dollars in the sports world exist at least in part due to media coverage. Many athletes can blast their stories and perspectives to millions as a result of reporter interactions. Sports have been a pillar of the attention economy long before anyone was using the term attention economy.
“Sports is also entertainment,” Elliott said. “How does it promote the game if you’re not letting your fans hear from more than one player?
Instead of changing the mechanics of athlete-journalist relationships, making news conferences less potentially detrimental to mental health may require changing the attitudes of those involved.
“I think the keyword is ‘relationship,’ right?” Wolanin said. “So in an ideal world, having the ability to form relationships with the athletes, it is incredibly effective for journalists and for the athletes.”
Whitner added, “When it comes to a reporter and a players’ relationship, I think it has to be an empathetic relationship . And it goes both ways. So until both sides are empathetic towards each other, I don't think that is a true depiction of sports.”
Please see our list of Mental Health Resources if you are seeking information or assistance regarding mental health.
Mental Health: A New Priority in Sport
Athletes continue to tell us they are not OK with their actions and words. In response, the sports industry has acknowledged it can and should be doing more to support the people who are its lifeblood, from athletes to coaches and beyond.
Sport is both reckoning with its roots, uncovering how history and habit created circumstances that don’t suit everyone who competes, as well as navigating new territory during a time of unprecedented strain on our mental well-being. By making mental health a priority, sport has an opportunity to confer a host of benefits supporting mental wellness and to be more safe, inclusive, and inspiring.