It is a truth seldom acknowledged in all the homilies to tennis star Naomi Osaka that psychological distress does not discriminate. Acute sensitivity to the scrutiny of others is not exclusive to one deeply vulnerable athlete.
You might wonder, then, at the lack of concern in tennis for the well-being of Paul Daugherty, the Cincinnati Enquirer columnist who has been fed to the hounds of hell of social media, after being baselessly smeared by Osaka’s agent as a “bully”, whose “sole purpose was to intimidate”.
His public evisceration is the latest evidence that the #BeKind movement, that vacuous badge of designer empathy, only works one way.
Daugherty was guilty of nothing more than doing his job. A few minutes into Osaka’s press conference at the Western and Southern Open, her first appearance in the forum that she claims is injurious to her mental health, he said: “You’re not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format. Yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform. How do you balance the two?”
His was a legitimate point that nobody else had the gumption to raise.
Since Osaka withdrew from Roland-Garros, saying she needed time away from media inquisitions, she has featured on the covers of Vogue Japan, Time and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, while launching everything from her own Barbie range to an all-access Netflix documentary series, plus lighting the Olympic cauldron.
The reporter spoke for many in asking how these two personas could be reconciled: the melancholic soul uncomfortable in the spotlight versus the superstar happy to take centre stage at the most-watched spectacle on the planet.
Osaka plainly did not like the line of inquiry, breaking down in tears before composing herself to say, candidly enough: “I’m not really sure how to balance the two. I’m figuring it out, as you are.”
It did not take long for any nuance in this exchange to be trashed, or for the questioner to be thrown to the wolves.
Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s agent at International Management Group, said: “The bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now. Everyone on that Zoom will agree that this tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Appalling behaviour.”
To call anyone a “bully” is to subject a person to grievous reputational harm. And yet Duguid brands Daugherty with this label despite lacking any compelling proof.
To watch the incident is to see only a journalist pressing Osaka, reasonably and without rudeness, about an apparent contradiction in her public image. His transgression was merely to broach a subject her handlers could not control or veto.
The consequence? That he is tarred and feathered by her millions of fans on social networks, that he has his good name defamed, his integrity doubted. Already, he is reported to have had death threats.
The number of people in tennis standing up for him is pitifully small. As ever, relationships with athletes are prized over solidarity with colleagues – laughable, given that Team Naomi seem to have little interest in engaging the media on anything but their own terms.
Mercifully, Nick Corey, a former wrestling writer, showed courage, telling Duguid to “pump brakes on the melodrama”. “Thank you – I’ve never bullied anyone my life,” Daugherty said. “Perhaps the critics should read what I wrote about Osaka.”
Yes, shall we do that? Shall we explore some context, usually a prerequisite if you are going to tarnish somebody with a damaging slur?
This is how Daugherty described the response he eventually received from Osaka in his paper: “Honest, thoughtful … and unlike any answer I’ve had in 34 years covering sports in Cincinnati. She’s very human and doesn’t mind showing it.”
Do these sound like the words of a “bully” to you? Are these grounds for subjecting him to unspeakable abuse from Osaka’s fan base? Sadly, in a stand-off between a single reporter and a senior vice-president at tennis’s most powerful agency, there will only be one winner.
And through it all, tennis stands idly by as a blameless individual is engulfed by the inferno. It is lamentable.
For it is about more than one journalist or one complex player. It is about how the dynamic between athlete and inquisitor has become so warped, people are no longer just traduced for what they ask, but how they ask it.
Duguid railed against the “tone” Daugherty used, while one US freelancer accused him of acting “fairly aggressively”. Replays of the video reveal not a hint of malice.
That Osaka is reduced to tears by one tip-toeing question suggests the demons that led her to avoid Paris and Wimbledon are far from being resolved. Indeed, to see this latest drama unfold is to wonder if she should be anywhere near a court just yet, never mind a press conference.
But before anyone rushes in with the #BeKind messages, spare a thought for the figure caught in the crossfire. For Daugherty deserves far better than to be mere collateral in tennis’s ghastly culture war.
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