Cristiano Ronaldo, Naomi Osaka rightly speak out
Cristiano Ronaldo and Naomi Osaka, the football and tennis stars, have each made a quiet and assertive statement in the middle of a global pandemic. Ronaldo removed Coca Cola bottles from the table at his Euro 2020 press conference on June 17, and Osaka refused to do the mandatory press conference at the French Open in May. Both the gestures were on health grounds, physical and mental. Osaka has been fined 15,000 dollars by the organisers of the French Open.
The financial stakes for these two sportspersons are indeed high, involving millions of dollars. And there are also the commercial legal tangles of contractual obligations.
We do not as yet know as to what drove Ronaldo to remove those Cola bottles out, but the message is clear to the world. The health hazards posed by the fizz drinks has been known much too long, but it seemed to have been pushed under the carpet by sponsors of sports events involving mega bucks. While physical fitness was a prerequisite for success in any sport, mental health has remained an invisible factor though everyone recognises that what distinguishes a successful player from the also-ran is the mental fibre. So, when Osaka spoke about the mental stress that the post-match press conferences caused and her refusal to endure mental distress, she was drawing attention to the most neglected aspect of human wellbeing — mental health. The reign of capitalistic market economy in the world of sports has not been challenged because it made super-rich millionaires of sportspersons, who came from ordinary and poor backgrounds. The players had no reason to complain though it involved the hard labour of remaining at the top of one’s own game – in this case, football, and tennis – and it requires genius and tremendous physical stamina.
If Ronaldo and Osaka were not at the top of their respective games, what they have said and done would not have been noticed, and the impact would have been zero though the moral intent behind the defiance would remain undiminished.
But Ronaldo and Osaka seemed to have felt that it was time to speak out in word and deed and that they should use their preeminent position to make a point that was waiting to be made.
We are not yet aware how this will play out. In the case of Ronaldo and Coca Cola, the American soft drink major may want to insist on Ronaldo’s contractual obligations. It may turn out to be a nasty legal wrangle.
It is quite unlikely Coca Cola would want to admit the ill-effects of its drink and carry a warning as did the cigarette companies when the latter were forced to declare in small print on the packing that consumption of tobacco was injurious to health. Or, Coca Cola would have to change its famous recipe and turn into a healthy drink. In the case of Osaka, the tennis associations will have to rethink their publicity-driven event management and allow the players the right to speak or not to speak with the media. And they must recognise mental illness as much of an impediment as physical illness. If a player says that he or she is psychologically unprepared to do the media interaction, and that the mental and physical reserves of energy are meant for playing the game, then the organisers should not have the right to impose conditionalities on the players. The capitalist market system must recognise that sports players are not pawns or robots, and they cannot be manipulated to do things against their will.
Hopefully, other players would take the cue from Ronaldo and Osaka and stand up for the right causes.