In May this year, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open (aka Roland-Garros) after she was fined for refusing to participate in post-match press conferences and warned that she could face expulsion from the tournament. In explaining her decision, Osaka said that she had been suffering with “long bouts of depression” since the 2018 US Open final and she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking with the media. In light of this, questions have been asked about whether Roland-Garros were right to fine Osaka. This has highlighted the need for parties to a dispute to consider the bigger picture before seeking to enforce their legal rights.

What’s the legal position?

Article III H of the 2020 Official Grand Slam Rule Book (the “Code of Conduct”), which applies to all players participating in tennis grand slams, states that:

“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, including walkovers, whether the player or team was the winner or loser… Violation of this Section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000”

 As such, when Naomi Osaka announced on social media prior to the tournament that she was “not going to do any press during Roland Garros” and then didn’t attend the press conference after her first match, she was technically in breach of her contractual obligations. Roland-Garros were therefore legally entitled to (and did) issue Osaka with a fine.

What else is at play?

As with any relationship, however, there is more to consider than the pure legal position. For example:

  • Moral considerations – in light of Naomi Osaka’s statement that she is struggling with her mental health and that press conferences contribute to her anxiety, there has been criticism of how Roland-Garros handled the situation. This has highlighted the need for governing bodies (and indeed all organisations) to consider the moral implications of their actions. It is notable that, in accordance with the Code of Conduct, if Osaka had been physically injured and unable to participate in the press conferences for that reason, she would not have been subject to a fine; however, there is no such exception for mental ill-health. Perhaps the Code of Conduct will be updated in light of recent events.
  • Reputation – both Roland-Garros and Naomi Osaka have received criticism for their handling of the situation. In sport (and business in general), reputation is vitally important so it’s essential that parties to a dispute consider how their actions might be viewed by the public. There are usually ways in which a dispute can be resolved collaboratively so as to protect the parties’ reputations and provide a better outcome for all involved.
  • Future relationship – Naomi Osaka is currently the World number 2 and at only 23 years old, she’s likely to have long career ahead of her. As a result of recent events though, the relationship between Osaka and Roland-Garros may have been damaged and this might impact on whether Osaka plays in future tournaments. When a possible dispute arises, it’s therefore important that parties consider what they want from the relationship moving forwards. If they want to continue working together, it’s often better to seek a quick, commercial resolution rather than engaging in a protracted dispute which could damage the relationship beyond repair, particularly where that relationship is a public one.
  • Possible counterclaim(s) – where a party breaches their contractual obligations, the non-breaching party can usually take action. What action that party can take will largely depend on the terms of the contract. For example, in this situation, as Naomi Osaka technically breached the Code of Conduct, that allowed Roland-Garros to issue a fine of up to $20,000. However, before a party takes action, they should consider the likelihood of there being any counterclaims against them. For example, governing bodies will usually owe a duty of care to the athletes involved in their sport. As such, it could be argued that, if a governing body does not provide sufficient support for an athlete’s mental health, they have breached their duty of care to that athlete and that might give rise to a claim.  Even if they hadn’t considered doing so previously, it is not uncommon for the threat of a claim or fine to trigger a party to start thinking about their own legal rights.

How can we help?

The situation with Naomi Osaka and Roland-Garros has highlighted the importance of mental health and the need for parties to consider the bigger picture when seeking to enforce their legal rights. At Irwin Mitchell, we will take the time to understand and manage the various risks to you or your business in order to prevent disputes from arising or resolve them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ultimately, we’ll help to protect your reputation and promote your success.

If you or your organisation have any questions, please visit our website or contact Tom Barnard or Naomi Findlay.