• Alex Mills

OPINION: How can sports journalists better respect the mental health of professional athletes?

Sporting Chance’s Communications Manager Chris Murphy looks at how sports journalists can better respect the mental health of athletes.


When Tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of press conferences at the French Open – and subsequently the tournament itself – citing her desire to protect her mental health, many journalists reacted with outrage while others asked questions of themselves.


The first of those two reactions is part of the problem. The vilification of a young female athlete for saying she wanted to prioritise her mental health over facing - often personal, cynical and sometimes brutal - questions from journalists so that they can fill column inches is, in itself, brutal.


The irony, of course, is that her decision to not play ball - figuratively and literally - resulted in column miles being printed. Much of it uncomplimentary, entitled and missing the point.


Other, more helpful, contributions were less focused on condemnation and judgement of a potentially vulnerable human-being struggling with their mental health and the demands of her unique career. Such commentaries provided a glimmer of hope with some journalists willing to point the camera and microphone at themselves, facing their own difficult questions.


How can we help to make press conferences a healthier experience for athletes? (a question which officials at Wimbledon have commendably posed to the players themselves).


Are any of our methods or questions triggering for athletes or potentially affecting their mental health in a negative way?


Why would one of the world’s leading athletes choose to pull out of one the world’s biggest sporting events rather than talk to us?


Ultimately, what can we do differently to avoid this happening again?


The crux of all of those questions is whether or not sports journalists can do their job effectively while respecting, or perhaps even prioritising, the mental wellbeing of the subjects of their interviews.


The answer is, of course, yes. The solutions, as with so many mental health solutions, begin with simply seeing athletes as not subjects for content but rather as human beings. We can all relate to those, right?


I have no doubt that athletes fully understand the need for the human stories behind the performances, achievements, ups and downs of professional sport to be told in order to promote themselves, their sport and garner interest from the public. However, I believe that the best human stories are told by people who are made to feel, well, human.


It is not a scathing criticism of journalists that they sometimes fall into the trap of seeing these sportspeople through different eyes. After all, reporters themselves are ‘only human’ and, like the rest of the public, are drawn to sport by these seemingly superhuman entities who can do what we can’t. Indeed, it is probably a human reaction to sometimes secretly revel in (or at least be desperate to make sense of) the frailties, failings and misfortunes of those we have always regarded as superior beings.


But as professionals, journalists must understand that athletes are not only human but actually quite often vulnerable people in an intensified emotional state, heightened by the pressure of the upcoming or just-completed contest, and that treating them as such would surely strengthen a weakening bond between sports stars and the media.


In practical terms, this means immediately detaching from the hype and atmosphere created by the perceived gladiatorial combat that they have just engaged in. After all, we expect them to do the same in order to answer questions. We must not become so consumed in storytelling that narrative trumps reality. How real is an answer that was achieved by pushing someone beyond their level of emotional tolerance anyway?


It also means treating them with the same consideration you would a friend who has just been through a mentally testing experience, whether the outcome was good or bad. Such an event would have altered their chemistry and state of mind. Most of us would be conscious of that and approach with caution and compassion.


The same technique could be applied to sportspeople. Their emotional state is often at an extreme level and they should be treated with care, empathy and respect.


For example, if you have a question that is unrelated to the reason that they are sat in front of you, maybe start by asking them if they are comfortable talking about that subject rather than catching them off guard. If they say no, respect that.


Journalism, particularly sports journalism is seen by many as a privileged career but it is a career that comes with its own unique pressures - deadlines, live broadcasting, travelling and unsociable working hours, to name a few.


If journalists can do their best to understand that the athletes they are interviewing are simply human-beings doing another job that has its own unique pressures, then maybe athletes will be more inclined to see journalists through the same lens… and the press conference will become a happier place, more comfortable and conducive to more interesting human stories being told.