Commentary: Nike Olympics’ ad blames sports writers for Naomi Osaka’s mental health issues

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I have an Olympic-sized beef with Nike.

You’ve seen their “Best Day Ever” Olympics TV ad, right? The one narrating — from morning alarm to bedtime — the course of an extraordinary (and much to be welcomed) tomorrow, when women break 10 seconds in the 100 meters. When the WNBA surpasses the NBA in popularity. When a woman runs a marathon on Mars. And when, um, something with hobby horses happens that “looks amazing.”

The ad’s frenetic pace slows markedly 24 seconds in. The scene shifts to an auditorium, set up for a press conference but deserted. The narrator slows down, too, and says, quietly, “Also, tomorrow, we will all finally respect athletes’ mental health.”

This is an obvious reference to all the controversy at this spring’s French Open. Tennis champion Naomi Osaka declined to attend required news conferences. She disclosed mental health issues that she said were exacerbated by her interactions with news media. She eventually withdrew from the Open under threat of expulsion.

To be clear: Naomi Osaka, who had the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron and won her first two matches in Tokyo before losing Tuesday, deserves nothing but respect for prioritizing her mental health during the Open. Also, she has made a great contribution, just as Baltimore’s own Michael Phelps has done, by speaking openly about her situation and increasing public understanding of the mental health stressors on elite athletes.

So I have no beef whatsoever with Osaka. Nike, on the other hand …

Nike’s ad carelessly implies that the fault for Osaka’s mental health condition somehow lies with sports writers. It suggests — visually, at least — that things would be better if someone just put a stop to news conferences. It demonizes reporters for just doing their job, which, after all, is actually to help us understand not only the games we watch but also the people who play them.

So what? Not much, maybe. After all, sports writers work in what even they jokingly refer to as a news outlet’s toy department. Games are not “real life.” Tournaments are not geopolitics. Even the Olympics are not climate change or immigration reform or racial conflict or the other critical stories that typically dominate the front page.

But those eight seconds in the middle of Nike’s commercial — made emphatic by a pace radically different from that of the rest of the ad — feel to me like more than just a gratuitous slap at sports writers. Intentional or not, I think those eight seconds are a reinforcement of what others in our society do to undermine the ability of a free and vigorous press to serve the public interest. Nike is, in this case, aligning itself with those who toss off unfounded disparagements like “fake news.” Worse, intentionally or not, Nike comes uncomfortably close to aligning itself with those who attack individual reporters verbally or even urge supporters to attack them physically.

I think I have some perspective on the issues Nike is addressing here. I’ve been a reporter, covering sports and hard news. I’ve been a PR guy, both in sports and hard news. I have asked questions in or organized many a news conference.

Several times in my adult life, I have also been treated for depression.

I feel nothing but admiration and compassion for Naomi Osaka. I root for her to succeed, as an athlete, certainly, but, more important, as a healthy, happy human being.

Nothing in Nike’s put-down of hardworking sports writers simply doing their job advances that success. What Nike’s ad does is make it just that little bit harder for all responsible reporters to do what we — as a free society — truly need them to do.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Dennis O’Shea (doshea55@comcast.net) is a former college sports information director and wire service reporter and editor. He retired after 28 years as news media spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University.

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