By Aron Solomon
After winning her first-round match on the revered red clay at Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping the Women’s Tennis Association’s mandatory press conference and has been threatened with increased fines and expulsion from the tournament should she continue to refuse.
The WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, undoubtedly has a world-class legal team, which it is going to desperately need unless it quickly reverses course. From an analysis of the relevant legal documents, it’s clear that the legal score is Advantage Osaka with match point on the horizon.
The WTA has an extremely detailed rulebook, which is the only relevant set of legal guidelines to determine the extent to which the organization is able to fine a player who chooses not to attend a post-match press conference.
Section VII governs player responsibilities, under which media responsibilities, including press conference attendance, are mentioned in heading B.
Nowhere in the fine guidelines for skipping press conferences is tournament expulsion mentioned.
As Ms. Osaka is number 2 in the world in the most recent WTA rankings, the WTA is able to assess a penalty of $2,500 should she skip her second-round press conference and $5,000 each time she makes herself unavailable to the press after that.
So, moving forward, in a major two-week tournament such as the French Open, assuming Ms. Osaka would make it all the way to the finals and skip the press conference each time, her window of fine exposure could be $35,000.
John Lawlor, a lawyer in South Florida, where many WTA players make their home base, explains that this is fundamentally a contractual relationship between the WTA and their athletes:
“Whether they govern team or individual sports, any sport governing body, such as the WTA, has a set of rules and a legally binding agreement with their athletes. Here, the WTA has clearly established procedures for fining athletes who don’t comply with their responsibilities, including attendance at press conferences. The WTA is absolutely allowed to do that but it is the limit of what the WTA is allowed to do.”
The WTA has drawn sharp criticism over the U.S. holiday weekend for simply calling an audible and trying to change its policies on the fly. Aside from the legal minefield this is, it’s also a ridiculous way for the WTA to shoot itself in the foot, especially as all major sports are trying to recover financially and earn back their fan bases after a horrific year of missed events.
Naomi Osaka is one of the most popular athletes in the world and is a sponsorship magnet and magnate. She was recently recognized as the highest-earning female athlete in the world, with a payday over the last year of close to $60 million. A recent Sportico report highlighted that “Osaka’s last 12 months have constituted one of the most memorable years ever by an athlete — male or female — across any sport.”
Not only is Osaka an increasingly beloved star and the new standard-bearer of the women’s game and arguably of professional tennis as a whole, but she has also clearly said that her reason for skipping the press conferences is her mental health.
She took to social media Wednesday to make her announcement and explain her position.
A USA Today Op-Ed published over the weekend captured the zeitgeist here and why this is such a sensitive issue for the WTA and the sponsors who support it.
“It’s time to accept that Osaka is a human being before she’s an athlete,” sports reporter Analis Bailey wrote. “Stepping away from the things that do not serve as an essential practice for your well-being, regardless of how mandatory society makes those things, is smart, not problematic.”
Yet on Sunday, the French Open doubled down on the rhetoric behind the fine, issuing a confusing statement in alliance with the other three Grand Slam tournaments. In its petite missive, the tournament claimed to empathize with tennis players under emotional duress while at the same time warning of escalating fines and punishments.
And then on Monday, as this piece was in final edits, Naomi Osaka returned to social media to drop the bombshell that she would not only withdraw from the French Open but would temporarily step away from the game.
As expected, Osaka’s Monday afternoon announcement already has the Twittersphere clamoring for a boycott of not only the French Open but also of every sponsor involved. From a brand perspective, what will be interesting to watch over the coming days and weeks is how the WTA sponsors react to the women’s tennis governing body’s ill-timed and ill-fated move.
The leading WTA sponsors include iQIYI (online video platform), Porsche (automotive), SAP (information technology), Cambridge Global Payments (financial services) and Tennis Warehouse (sporting goods).
What an opportunity to be the first WTA sponsor to not simply threaten to remove support for the WTA when it creates new rules to persecute Ms. Osaka, but to come out in a positive way, support this high-profile athlete and make a statement in support of the importance of mental health, especially after the last 16 months we have all collectively endured in a global pandemic.
Whether one of the WTA sponsors seizes and converts this opportunity remains to be seen. There are two things that are certain here.
The first is that Naomi Osaka’s sponsors aren’t going to abandon her. They realize that supporting her is going to be a huge win.
What is also certain is that if the WTA further digs in on a legally untenable position, where we may be heading is to court — and not the red clay kind.