Sponsors hail Naomi Osaka’s ‘courage’ in mental health

A few years ago, a star athlete leaving a major tennis tournament with mental health issues could have been viewed as a sign of weakness.

Today, at least for Naomi Osaka’s corporate sponsors, he is hailed as refreshingly honest.

This would explain why so many of them stayed in Osaka after the four-time Grand Slam champion announced that she was withdrawing from Roland Garros because she did not want to show up to the required press conferences that caused her ” huge waves of anxiety. . ”

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Osaka, who also admitted suffering from “long bouts of depression”, has been criticized by some who say media events are “just part of the job”.

But Nike, Sweetgreen and other sponsors have released statements in favor of the 23-year-old star after revealing his struggles.

“Our hearts are with Naomi,” Nike said in a statement.

“We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience.”

Sweetgreen tweeted that its partnership with Osaka “is rooted in wellness in all its forms.” And Mastercard tweeted: “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all of how important it is to put personal health and wellness first.”

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Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consultancy Metaforce, said Osaka’s disclosure made her a more authentic and valuable spokesperson for corporate sponsors.

“Every athlete gets sports sponsorship because they win games or perform well,” he said.

“But the best become true brand ambassadors when they have a bigger personality. The best brand ambassadors are real people. (Osaka) is talking about an issue that affects many people. Mental health is a problem. bigger problem than winning or losing tennis. ”

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Reilly Opelka, a 23-year-old American tennis player, seeded 32nd at Roland Garros and playing his third round match on Friday, said he was happy that Osaka “is taking the time to improve.” “She’s one of the best players in the world, she’s very influential,” Opelka said. “Sport needs her. She’s an icon. It’s bad for sport to have one of the main attractions not there.”

Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, moved to the United States with her family at the age of 3 and now lives in Los Angeles.

She has played a leading role in protesting the deaths last year of George Floyd and other deceased black people at the hands of police, wearing a mask with the name of a different victim on each game day at the US Open 2020. She was named the 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year.

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According to Forbes, Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, earning $ 37 million in 2020 from top-notch sponsors like Tag Heuer, AirBnB and Louis Vuitton in addition to Mastercard and Nike.

Nike has backed sports stars after other controversies including Tiger Woods after his 2009 sex scandal and former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after kneeling during games to protest police brutality against blacks .

But he recently ditched Brazilian soccer star Neymar after refusing to cooperate with an internal investigation into the sexual assault allegations of a Nike staff member.

Osaka’s revelation comes as celebrities and other public figures openly address their own issues of depression and anxiety.

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Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, shared their experiences in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey and have since partnered with her to create a mental health-focused series called “The Me You Can’t See”, in which Prince Harry talks about working through anxiety and grief.

Osaka is also joining a growing list of top athletes speaking out about mental health. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, NBA players Kevin Love and WNBA’s DeMar DeRozan and A’ja Wilson have all spoken very publicly about their bouts of depression, sharing both successes and setbacks.

All four Grand Slam tournaments have responded to Osaka’s withdrawal by pledging to do more to address players’ mental health issues.

The episode could also serve as a tipping point for tours of professional tennis – and leagues in other sports – to protect the mental and not just physical health of athletes, said Windy Dees, professor of sports administration at the ‘University of Miami.

“This is absolutely a growth opportunity for the (Women’s Tennis Association) and all the leagues, there is a lot of work to do,” Dees said.

Marketing consultant Adamson believes Osaka’s decision to come forward will encourage many other athletes to disclose their own mental health battles.

He noted that if Osaka had disclosed his bouts of depression 10 years ago, his sponsors would likely have been left on the sidelines because the issue was taboo. But, he noted, the pandemic has raised awareness about mental illness.

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