Way back in the early 1980s, the mother of a young female West Australian tennis player rang me at The Daily News and told me to stop publishing her daughter’s earnings. “It’s nobody else’s business,” she said. I tried pointing out that the money winners’ list was not my work, but was issued from the US by the Women's Tennis Association itself, and sent out on the international wires. It was a bit like the rankings lists that are regularly referred to these days, now that the old-style pioneering pro tours, when just about everyone played in the same events, no longer exist. But back then it there was also a large slice of PR about it. “Look what sort of dough your daughter could be pocketing if she joined the professional tennis tour,” it was saying. (The WTA was founded by Billie Jean King in 1973 with just nine players.) Not that the accumulated winnings would have been difficult for anyone to work out. As with golf, the total prizemoney on offer in each tournament was known, as was the way that prizemoney was allocated. Extras, like Extra chewing gum endorsements, didn’t come into the reckoning.
But of course the mother of the WA player on the WTA tour was having none of this. And it seemed strange to me that she might imagine her daughter, so prominent on the international sporting stage, was somehow entitled to some privacy about the amount of money she was winning. The mother’s savage outburst on the phone came back to me when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open three weeks ago. I’m sure she’d now be siding with Osaka, but perhaps for more defensible reasons than those expressed all those years ago.
The amounts highly-paid sports professionals earn should be in the public domain. In Osaka’s case, however, the question is whether she has the right to earn much less money by refusing to attend press conferences. Surely it’s her call, and “nobody else’s business”.
I’m still not sure what position to take on the Osaka affair. At least one colleague, whose opinions I respect, went online declaring Osaka is in the wrong, that she had a responsibility to the sport which has rewarded her so handsomely. My initial reaction was to feel some sympathy for her, especially on the mental health issue. But those who heard my Zoom talk on sports writing during the Herman Price gathering late last year will know that I’m very much of the old school when it comes to journalists relying on press conferences for their stories. Without taking into consideration the real reasons Osaka took her stand, my first reaction was that Osaka was doing sports writers a favour by making them file their copy without any additional help from her.
Under the headline “More than just a game: the ageless art of the sports writer”, The Guardian’s Barney Ronay last week talked about his newspaper’s team “taking to the field once again to report on an exciting flurry of events that hopefully will serve as an agreeable distraction from the horrors of the past 18 months”. Among the events he mentioned was Wimbledon, which Osaka will also miss. Ronay said, “One thing that is startlingly unchanged through the years is the florid, waspish tone of Guardian sports writing, a style much beloved of readers who have always wanted far more than just results and action from their sports pages. An early protagonist was Neville Cardus [who] is the obvious place to start when comparing the experience of sports writing then and now.” Ronay believes Cardus invented “a way of seeing and describing sport” and that he became “sports writing’s first popular star”. On that point Ronay overlooks Pierce Egan, whose Boxiana preceded Cardus by more than a century.
All that aside, Cardus never attended a press conference. Nor did Egan. I have attended many, but never once did I go into a press conference depending on it for a story. By a sheer fluke, however, one press conference did give me a scoop. It was in Kuala Lumpur during the 1998 Commonwealth Games, and I was the only Australian journalist in attendance. I had sensed earlier in the day, being in a similar position at the finish line of the women’s road cycling race, that “something was up” in the Australian camp. None of the clearly anguished Australians would “spill the beans”, but the race winner, Canadian Lyne Bessette, opened up on how the Australian team had self-destructed through Kathy Watt deciding to ignore the race plan and go it alone. Once on to it, I managed to get a call into the Games Village and, realising I was armed with details, an Australian official confirmed all. The thing about that particular press conference was that everyone had expected the usual scripted replies – no one anticipated that Bessette, now a politician, would put her unexpected triumph down to a severe outbreak of Australian cattiness.
Press conferences are no more or less than an easy way out for sports reporters who are incapable of constructing a news story from a mere sporting event. At a Press gathering before the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, as I asked the head of the News Corp team what Jesse Owens had done at the 1936 Berlin Games. She didn’t know. “What does it matter?” she asked. It matters. Knowledge of sports means a reporter doesn’t have to go into a press conference, desperate for a story and prepared to ask Naomi Osaka questions which bear no relation to her tennis playing, or the outcome of the match in which she had just played. Press conferences also give athletes opportunities to lie, as Ben Johnson did in Seoul in 1988 and Marion Jones did in Sydney in 2000. In the broader world, they’re a platform for politicians to spread fake news about fake news. So I’m inclined to back Osaka. More power to her tennis elbow, I say.