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ESPN Columnist Discusses An Athlete's Obligation To The Press That Covers Them

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to sports. First, Naomi Osaka said no to the press, then the No. 2 women's tennis player left the French Open altogether. And in recent days, we've talked a lot about Osaka's mental health after she revealed that she's dealing with depression. Right now we're going to look at the relationship between athletes and the sports media. Joining us is Meadowlark Media's Howard Bryant. You also hear him sometimes on Weekend Edition.

Welcome back.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hello. How are you?

CORNISH: So you write that since the '20s, the press has been instrumental in growing pro sports and that talking and publicizing those conversations with athletes was a part of that. Can you talk about what that looked like?

BRYANT: Well, I think what it's been is that the real question that's been taking place right now is the traditions of sport. Are - have we reached a point where the athletes do not need to be forced, essentially, at some level to communicate? It is - the obligation here is with - is between the athlete and the tournament. I mean, the media is obviously a very big part of this, but where this became a controversy was in the obligation. In other sports, players are not obligated to talk to media. But in tennis, this is part of their obligation. So what Naomi Osaka was doing is...

CORNISH: But you've also made a delineation - sorry to interrupt. You've also made the delineation between - that you have a generation of athletes who also are positioned as entertainers in the style of movie stars...

BRYANT: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Who also don't want to do daily press anymore.

BRYANT: Well, exactly. And that's what I'm saying - is that you have a cultural, generational difference here. The athletes for the last 25 years are like, well, wait a minute. People get upset that I make $20 million, but they don't get mad that Prince made that much money or that Beyonce makes that kind of money. And now they're also saying, well, when Neil Young does a concert or when Jay-Z does a concert, they don't have to do media, but we have to do media. So what you're seeing here is a shift - a cultural shift and a cultural challenge of the traditions of media. And what the tournaments are saying is you have a professional obligation to speak to the press. And that was at the root of this challenge.

And then, obviously, what Naomi Osaka was saying at first, I think, was dealt because she did it very publicly and also because this generation really does speak to the public directly because she posted on Instagram. And once it went public without sort of the behind-the-scenes conversation, then the federations came down on her en masse. It wasn't just the French Open. It was Wimbledon. It was the U.S. Open, and it was the Australian Open, all together looking like - essentially ganging up on a 23-year-old.

CORNISH: In part, is this because of some of the history you've talked about? If the relationship was between professional leagues who needed the advertising and the media, which stepped up to do that, in a way, the athletes weren't exactly let in on that deal, right?

BRYANT: No, not at all.

CORNISH: I mean, now it seems like they're using their muscle.

BRYANT: Absolutely.

CORNISH: And is it a surprise that both media and the leagues are the ones that are most upset?

BRYANT: Well, no, it's not a surprise. I mean, the leagues absolutely are trying to promote their tournament. And their attitude is - is that without this promotion, which is essentially free advertising, then the $3.3 million that you make for winning the championship wouldn't be nearly as large, that you do have a responsibility as part of that. So to me, it always comes back to labor. This is a labor issue. This is a workplace condition issue. And then when Osaka - when she withdrew, now they've sort of pulled back a little bit and said, well, maybe we do need to look at the conditions as well. So this is going to be an ongoing conversation about a massive cultural shift during a very, very explosive time in our history.

CORNISH: That's Howard Bryant, contributor to ESPN.

Thanks so much for digging in with us.

BRYANT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CREMA PARAISO SONG, "TO ZING WITH YOUR GF (PARADISE CREAM)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.