Naomi Osaka Prioritized Herself — And It Was The Right Choice

There are people who can’t fathom Naomi Osaka walking away from the French Open, but she chose herself and we can learn from that

Photo Credit: Rena Schild via Shutterstock

Everyone has a lot to say about Naomi Osaka right now. How dare someone with so much fame, money, and status say “no” to us, the general public, let alone the general media. As a matter of fact, how dare she not just shut up and play tennis for our convenience and enjoyment? She’s an athlete with sponsorships and cashing checks worth more than some of our entire estates. She has the money to fix everything!

And it’s that sentiment that proves that she made the right call prioritizing herself and her mental health. It’s clear that if she doesn’t care for her own good, there’s a good number of people who surely wouldn’t.

We’ve come so far, placating the importance of mental health, using it to call off of work, blaming it for our unhappiness, and embracing every aspect of it…for ourselves. But when it comes to others, especially the rich and famous, ESPECIALLY the rich and famous and minority, we don’t offer that same grace to them.

Why?

In a time where we should be rallying behind Osaka, people would rather debate whether she was right or wrong for picking her mental health over tennis — at the end of mental health awareness month nonetheless — as if taking action is not something that should follow self-awareness.

This society refuses to budge on old and antiquated ideals and responses to mental health. It’s a living, breathing contradiction, one that uses buzz words to appease people, attempting to call their bluff with the hope that action will never follow. If mental health awareness really meant something, then this wouldn’t be what I was writing right now.

Let me paint the picture. You’ve beaten one of the greatest athletes of our generation in Serena Williams. This is your moment. It’s a slice of history that others will look back on. Your adrenaline takes you to your highest only to be brought down to your absolute lowest, listening to a chorus of boos while accepting your U.S. Open trophy. You feel like you have to apologize for winning during the best moment of your career because of a visceral and rabid reaction to your accomplishment.

Now you carry this with you for the next 3 years. Every time you swing a racket, people are breathing down your neck, reminding you of the past, denigrating what you’ve done, and putting the heaviest of burdens on your shoulders. Now you have to win moving forward or story-hungry sharks will be waiting to devour you after your matches.

This isn’t something you just get over. Situations like these have been catalysts for so many people to venture down dark paths. Is it so hard to believe that success doesn’t keep us from having real and raw human emotions and emotional overload? Is it even harder to believe that being forced into answering loaded questions, where people are looking to find their inch, isn’t anxiety and depression inducing when all you want to do is decompress after experiencing a peak or a low?

And this is where we fall short and don’t get it. No matter how much we attain physically, whether it’s wealth, whether we’re good at something enough to do it at an elite level, or whether we have millions of followers, those things can never and will never protect us from what we feel and who we are as humans. They don’t mitigate pain, hurt, or darkness. We can still get lost in them in ways that can take months or years to resolve.

It’s tradition to do media conferences after every major and minor sports event. We love soundbites. Reporters love click-worthy statements to use for headlines, talking points, and ledes, but it’s not always in the best interest of the athletes. Both the public and the media are known for stripping stars of their humanity, expecting them to be at their best despite these athletes having spent so much physical and mental labor to compete just minutes before.

We make it hard for them to ever refuse us, barring a death in the family, because we’ve placed an expectancy on them where they have to say something and if they don’t talk, they have to endure shots at their public image and their professionalism for extended periods of time. This should be a wake up call around how mental health care and acknowledgment is still largely taboo and neglected when it comes to athletes.

This is where Naomi Osaka has been for years — constantly being put in these situations. We’ve all been here. Some of us are here now with our jobs, organizations, and affiliations. Some of us are here with our family and friends. Some of us haven’t even had the courage to prioritize ourselves first and be willing to make the hard choice to walk away.

This is where we as a society have to put our feet down on the gas and change. Mental health issues can’t just be subjective and relevant to us. When we talk about them or they come to light, our first reaction should be empathy. Empathy because when it’s our experience, only we fully know what ails us. Empathy because we know that someone else fully knows what ails them too. Empathy because we deserve to make the decisions best for us to get help proactively or during a crisis as human beings. Empathy because others deserve to make the decisions best for them to get help proactively or during a crisis…no matter their status and as human beings as well.

Empathy because mental health issues affect everyone, that includes our heroes, our entertainers, our athletes, and our public figures that same way it affects our family members, our friends, our associates, and ourselves.

We constantly push ourselves over the edge for the sake of doing something. Naomi Osaka refused to do this, even at the expense of her run at the French Open. That’s hard. Imagine the pressure, but now she has an opportunity to grow and heal and stabilize. That matters more.

And yes, there are some things in life we have to persevere through. There are also things that we have to say no to for our own sake. She did the latter. We should be able to understand that. Everyone is different so everyone needs their chance to deal with their mental health with the way that they see fit and that’s okay. That’s not for us to judge and decide when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

This isn’t just a one-off event. We’ve seen other athletes do this before. My desire is that this opens the door for more to choose themselves when they need it most. I want that for all of us. WE should want that for all of us.

It takes bravery knowing that you could lose something important to you, but you still put your mental well-being first. Naomi Osaka took that leap. Here’s to hoping she makes it through what she’s going through.

I respect her for taking care of herself. You should too.