To speak or not to speak…

There is a lot to be excited about ahead of Wednesday’s first Test between the West Indies and South Africa at the Darren Sammy Stadium in St.Lucia but one thing is certain – no players on either team will be refusing to speak to the media. 

Naomi Osaka’s decision to blank the obligatory press conferences during the French Open at Roland Garros has been vexing me all week. She was duly fined after her first round victory, as she knew she would be, and subsequently withdrew from the tournament.

Only once in 30 years have I taken umbrage at being snubbed by a sportsman, and that was because it cost me. Otherwise I’ve always felt that it is their right to choose whether to speak or not. While conducting numerous ‘media awareness’ courses for young sports people over the years I’ve always emphasised the importance and value to their careers of being able to engage effectively during an interview or press conference. Not being able to do so almost invariably costs them more than it does the media.

At the 1992 Million Dollar challenge at Sun City the organisers hired high-profile American rules official, Buddy Young, as tournament director. He duly generated headlines – although not of the sort the organisers were hoping for – by disqualifying the co-leader, Nick Price, and Open champion Nick Faldo after the third round. Price’s caddy had innocently moved an advertising hoarding during the round which Buddy deemed worthy of a two-shot penalty and Price did not, so he refused to sign his card. Faldo had inadvertently signed for an incorrect score after playing partner Bernard Langer marked a ‘4’ on the 18th rather than a bogey 5.

I was reporting the tournament for the BBC and they naturally asked me to get a short comment from Faldo. Price was not only happy to oblige, he virtually organised his own press-conference to tell his side of the story and protest his innocence having assumed that the normal ‘line of sight’ rules applied to temporary, movable objects rather than permanent obstructions. Everyone, it must be said, apart from Buddy, saw it the same way.

Faldo, however, stormed towards the hotel to pack his bags and leave as soon as possible. He snarled what could have been a mild obscenity at me when I asked for a comment – “just one sentence will be fine, please?” The BBC had promised me an extra £50 which, back then, was the difference between breaking even and turning a small profit for the week in the early years of my freelance career.

Adrenalin took over and I pursued Faldo, shaking. “Mr Faldo, you get paid 10,000 times what I’ll get for this interview…and you can’t give me 30 seconds of your time?” He stopped, glared at me, pondered, and said: “Go on then, 30 seconds…”

In the late 90s a prominent South African cricketer misunderstood something I had said or written and vowed never to speak to me again. Rather than an inconvenience, it was a blessing. Never again did I have to tolerate his surliness. It was liberating. As I have told many young sports people, in the absence of an explanation observers have little option but to draw their own conclusions. 

Press conferences can be tedious and repetitive. They can also be intimidating and sometimes excruciatingly awkward. They are almost always inconvenient, invariably last too long and always contain questions which are inane and/or irrelevant. And there are always members of the media for whom the opportunity to speak – often with statements rather than questions – cannot be passed up. 

When Osaka declared her intention to skip them all, no matter how she played, my first instinct was to offer a knowing grin. The only reservation was her reasoning that the ‘negative criticism of her game’ wasn’t good for her mental health. If she’d cited the ridiculousness of the questions or the fact that press conferences sometimes take place at absurd times of the night, I’d have fully agreed. But criticism of her second serve or sliced back-hand, no matter how ill-informed, has to be tolerated. 

The problem for event organisers is their duty to sponsors who receive valuable airtime while the players are on air and in vision. If mandatory public appearances were made voluntary, the fear is that the biggest names (and bank balances) would be the most likely to skip them. The contestants making their way up the ladder, if properly media-coached, would be keen to use the secondary stage on which to perform, the one provided by the media. As I tell my students: “Unfortunately, media people have absolutely no effect on how much they get paid – but they might just have an effect on what you get paid. If you can’t bring yourself to get on with them, at least make their jobs easier.”

Osaka is only 22-years-old and has been brave enough to talk about having mental health challenges. At times in her short but bright career she has looked and sounded bored, disinterested and even disrespectful. Anybody with first-hand, or even second-hand knowledge of depression will know the signs. All she was asking before the tournament was that media protocols are re-examined. They have been done the same way for too long. 

A fresh look, with an open mind, is not just the least Osaka deserves, it’s what all sport deserves – on a regular basis.   

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