How important are press conferences in the game of tennis? Apparently extremely important, according to all four of the associations, including the USTA, that run the four the Grand Slam events at Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, Melbourne Park, and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. So important, in fact, that Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 on Monday after she posted a statement on Twitter, indicating that she would not participate in press conferences during the French Open, citing mental health issues.
Osaka later announced on Twitter that she would be withdrawing from the tournament altogether, sparking widespread discussion about the stigma surrounding mental health in the sports business and whether star athletes should be forced to participate in media appearances. Numerous fellow tennis stars have posted messages in support of Osaka, including Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jeanne King.
Though Roland-Garros takes place in France, the tournament’s brusque treatment of Osaka would have likely run afoul of the disability discrimination laws had it taken place in the U.S.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 bans discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace or in places of public accommodation, meaning any business or enterprise that opens its doors to the general public. The ADA covers both physical disabilities and various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Without this law, people with disabilities would be treated as second-class citizens.
Unlike laws against race discrimination, which outright ban nearly all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic/national categories, the ADA acknowledges that some kinds of discrimination based on disability are inevitable. For instance, technology does not currently exist that would allow a legally blind person to operate an airplane or delivery truck. In cases like these where a business cannot feasibly adapt, the ADA states that an employer or an enterprise open to the public need only make “reasonable accommodations” for employees or customers with disabilities. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation is not necessary if it would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the business or enterprise.
The same rules and analysis apply here. Is a reasonable accommodation possible for Osaka, or would it “fundamentally alter” the game of tennis to allow her to step away from press conferences?
The Supreme Court took up this exact issue in May 2001 when it decided the case of Casey Martin, a professional golfer with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a condition that caused progressive degeneration of his right leg and made it painful for him to walk. While various golf tournaments and Martin’s college athletic conference allowed him to use a golf cart to travel between shots, the PGA Tour refused to allow him to use one during its tournament, citing the rules of that particular contest. Martin filed a lawsuit in Oregon federal court, claiming the PGA Tour discriminated against him based on his disability.
The PGA Tour’s main argument was that walking the golf course was an integral part of the tournament, and that letting Martin ride a golf cart would fundamentally ruin it. This argument was rejected by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, as well as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in Martin’s favor.
In a 7-2 opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling and found that the PGA Tour was required under the ADA to grant Martin a reasonable accommodation based on his disability.
In siding with Martin, the Supreme Court identified two ways in which a change to the game could fundamentally alter it. First, a change could fundamentally alter the game for all players equally, such as changing the diameter of the hole from three inches to six. A comparable example in tennis would be lowering the net by a foot.
Second, and more to the point, the Court said that a reasonable accommodation could fundamentally alter the game by giving the accommodated individual an unfair advantage. In Martin’s case, the Court said there was no evidence that the walking rule had any serious impact on the game of golf in that way. Even under the most grueling conditions, it was still far from physically demanding. Many competitors saw it as a way to blow off steam or get to know the course. Skipping the walk between holes gave Martin no clear advantage over competitors, the Court found.
The Court further noted that the walking rule was “not an indispensable feature of tournament golf,” and that the fundamental aspect of the game is shot-making, or “using clubs to cause a ball to progress from the teeing ground to a hole some distance away with as few strokes as possible.”
Under this standard, it is nearly impossible to argue that a press conference is an indispensable feature of tennis. In fact, the walking rule in golf has a much stronger argument in its favor; it is at least integral to game time and requires physical endurance. A press conference has neither quality. It is not remotely athletic in nature.
It is also difficult to conceive how failing to participate in a press conference would give one tennis player an advantage over another. At its core, tennis is also about shot-making, or using tennis rackets to move a ball into an opponent’s court in a way that prevents them from making a valid return. Speaking to the media is totally separate from gameplay and has no discernible impact on the outcome of a tournament. One could even argue that forcing athletes with mental disabilities such as anxiety or depression to participate in press conferences could actually give players without those disabilities an unfair advantage.
The Grand Slam’s refusal to make any exception is tantamount to saying that the rules of tennis “are sacrosanct and cannot be modified under any circumstances,” in Justice Steven’s memorable words. In other words, it is the same as claiming to be above the law, at least when the law requires you to accommodate disabilities.
There is no good reason for this kind of treatment. A press conference does not fundamentally alter the game of tennis in either way that the Supreme Court described when it considered Martin’s case. Just like the PGA Tour in Casey Martin’s case, the Grand Slam has therefore fallen back on the argument that it would be unfair to the other players, stating: “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”
The Martin ruling disposes of this argument as well. Press conferences have little to do with the competitive element of tennis. There are also simple steps that can be taken to ensure that Osaka receives no unfair advantage, such as barring her from warming up, stretching or practicing while her opponents answer questions.
While the French Open is not subject to American laws, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments would have to be circumspect about rash actions like this one in an American tournament, as they carry the risk of a successful challenge in federal court.