IN SOME PROFESSIONS like politics, the participants must be accountable to the public and the media is conventionally thought to be the medium to do so. With social media this model is getting disrupted but, still, the press conference remains a mainstay among politicians. They don’t mind. It is the lifeblood from which power will flow. There are other professions which have great appeal among the public, but it is not one of accountability. A sportsperson’s career is not made on the basis of his popularity. It is a function of skill. Sachin Tendulkar would still be in the Indian team if the entire country hated him. Can a sportsperson then be forced to appear in press conferences by a tournament’s organiser? Or, as happened with the tennis player Naomi Osaka, penalised when she refuses to? She eventually decided to leave the tournament rather than be humiliated.
Not many in the field relish such media interactions, but they don’t shy away either. Former India Test cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for example, never gave interviews but still came to press conferences. If he didn’t like the questions, he made his disdain clear. Serena Williams, commenting on the Osaka episode, said that she could deal with it because she had a thick skin. And her sister Venus Williams said that while the media might think they have a right over her to ask questions, she knew none of them could play like her. “So no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me,” Williams said.
Osaka is terrified of public appearances and suffers from depression. To make her to do anything more than play is to add a layer of anxiety that has nothing do with the game. There is no self-evident right from which players can be made to do more than play and yet, in top-level sports today, it is considered normal because commercial stakes demand it. Sums involved are vast. And labels of brands that pour in the money need to be given their full amplitude. The French Open’s hardline on her—threat of expulsion and a $15000 fine—is a statement about players being products first. When forced to choose between Osaka as player and as marketing commodity, they had no doubts.
The phenomenon cuts across the sporting world. Take the concept of auctioning of players in the Indian Premier League, reminiscent of human beings sold to the highest bidder. Or in European club football, with players being traded by third parties. Consider what would happen if private companies demanded the same right. Would any government allow it if a sugar mill decided that it could trade its worker with another mill? It works in sports because the sportsperson makes enormous amounts from that commercial framework. But it is in the end a Faustian bargain that you see only when someone is unable to fulfil that bargain.