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Catherine Forshaw | The legal repercussions of Osaka’s French Open withdrawal

Catherine Forshaw, solicitor at independent law firm Brabners, examines the legal implications for event organisers of Osaka’s decision not to do press during the recent Roland Garros tournament and her subsequent withdrawal citing mental health issues

Catherine Forshaw

Just three days before Roland Garros commenced, world number two and four-time Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka announced that she was “not going to do any press during Roland Garros”, citing the impact of press conferences as detrimental to her mental wellbeing.

Subsequently, Osaka failed to attend her post-match press conference following her first-round victory over Patricia Maria Tig and was fined the equivalent of £10,570 ($14,849 /€12,263m). A joint statement was issued by the four Grand Slam tournaments warning Osaka that she faced expulsion from the tournament for breaching the Grand Slam Rules and Code of Conduct (the ‘Rules’). The ensuing media coverage eventually led to Osaka withdrawing from the tournament citing long bouts of depression” and “huge waves of anxiety” when speaking with the media. Issues she had suffered with since her appearance in the 2018 US Open final.

Support for Osaka’s actions has been divided, with many athletes speaking with the media and stating that it is simply “part of the job”. In light of this, questions have been asked about how to balance commercial and contractual obligations, on the one hand, and the duty of care owed by tournament organisers to athletes and athletes’ wellbeing generally on the other.

Regulatory position

Before we explore the moral implications, there are first a number of jurisdictional issues to consider. Osaka is a member of the US Tennis Association, the national governing body for tennis whose rules are governed by territorial US laws. Osaka is also a member of the Women’s Tennis Association, the international governing body for women’s tennis which is governed by the law and jurisdiction of New York. Osaka is subject to the rules of each of these governing bodies. In addition, by agreeing to enter Roland Garros, Osaka agreed to be bound by the Rules – through which the participants will have avenues to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

As a registered Roland Garros participant, Osaka had agreed to adhere to the Rules within her participation agreement, including: “…Each player agrees to cooperate with the news media and to participate upon request in reasonable promotional activities of the Grand Slam Tournaments…”;  “Unless injured and physically unable to appear, a player or team must attend the post-match media conference(s) organised immediately or within thirty (30) minutes after the conclusion of each match…” and “… “ Main Draw players must participate, if requested, in a pre-event press conference […] Violation of this Section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000”.

Whilst the specific terms of Osaka’s participation agreement are unknown, the issues arising appear to be straightforward. As a ‘Main Draw’ player she was required to attend all pre-event press events as requested by the event organiser in addition to all post-match media conferences. Any failure to attend to these commitments amounts to a “Player On-Site Offence” under the Rules.

Crucially, however, the Rules allow for players not to attend post-match media obligations if they have suffered a physical injury, but no such allowances are made for mental health conditions. This may explain why Osaka chose to withdraw from the tournament rather than file an appeal.

Naomi Osaka. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Duty of care

Roland Garros, as tournament host, will likely owe a lawful duty of care to the players that participate. The WTA will also likely owe a separate duty of care to its players. This means that a level of protection is afforded to players in order to prevent any potential harm arising, whether that be psychological or physical harm.

Provided that tournament organisers have carried out their duty of care, there is no redress for players if they are injured in the pursuit of normal sporting activity. It is only possible to take action if the duty of care has been breached. Establishing a breach, involves the application of a ‘test of reasonableness’. This involves considering what is reasonable to expect an organisation to have done in the circumstances, for example, could different media policies and procedures have been implemented to minimise the risks to athletes? For this reason, there will be pressure on the organisations involved to ensure this matter is treated sensitively.

It may be argued that, if the WTA does not provide sufficient support for an athlete’s mental health, then they have breached their own obligations and fallen below the standard of a reasonable governing body. It remains to be seen whether the WTA may define Osaka’s impaired mental health as an “illness”.

Setting a precedent

This self-imposed barrier between Osaka and the media certainly sets a precedent, but whether it is favourable or not is a matter of opinion. Osaka may only be one player, but she is the highest paid female sports star in history. In 2019 she made approximately £30m before setting foot on a tennis court. This statistic alone emphasises that the financial rewards both herself and her sponsors receive are partly due to her off-court behaviours and conduct.

Osaka’s actions may also have huge commercial implications for those lower down the rankings, especially if other players decide to boycott press conferences. In their joint press statement, the grand slam tournaments emphasised that there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another – which may be perceived to be the case here.

Commercial implications

Roland Garros’ viewing figures and the levels of exposure delivered to its sponsors will undoubtedly have been impacted by Osaka’s withdrawal from the tournament. As a consequence, Roland Garros may have breached its contractual obligations with broadcasting partners and sponsors. It remains to be seen whether there will be any contractual repercussions and, if so, whether the tournament will seek redress from Osaka directly.

The key question is: What do the parties want from their relationship moving forwards? Roland Garros will need to evaluate the value of having Osaka competing in the tournament. If they want to continue working together, it may be better to seek a quick, commercial resolution rather than engaging in a protracted (and likely public) dispute which could damage the relationship and potentially the reputation of the sport of tennis beyond repair.

Osaka’s stand has certainly shone the spotlight on mental health and there is an opportunity for sports to develop new protocols in conjunction with players, media and tournament officials. It also affords sport regulators and tournament organisers an opportunity to carefully consider how it can properly observe its legal obligations and meet its duty of care towards participants – even those participating at the highest levels.

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