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Naomi Osaka’s boundary setting invokes memories of Ricky Williams’ struggles with insensitive media

Today, professional athletes simply don’t need the media as much as the media needs access to athletes. In this era of social media and player empowerment, we can normalize that athletes should be calling the shots and setting safe personal boundaries.

New Orleans Saints vs Seattle Seahawks - September 17, 2000 Photo by Tami Tomsic/Getty Images

Before being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and avoidance disorder, Ricky Williams was diagnosed by the media as a weirdo. He preferred to wear his New Orleans Saints helmet with visor shades while conducting interviews and generally avoided fans and media as much as he possibly could.

“I was 23, a millionaire and had everything, yet I was never more unhappy in my life,” Williams said. “I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn’t explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me.”

Luckily, one of Williams’ close friends suggested he see a therapist and Williams was able to begin treatment for his disorders through therapy, medication, and later medicinal marijuana. Williams also cultivated overall health and wellness by obtaining certifications in yoga, acupuncture, herbal and Ayurvedic medicine.

“After I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, I felt immense relief because it meant that there was a name for my suffering. I wasn’t crazy or weird, like I thought for so many years,” said Williams. “As part of my treatment program, my physician prescribed an antidepressant, in combination with therapy. Soon thereafter I was able to start acting like the real Ricky Williams.”

Would Williams’ depression and anxiety have been even worse under today’s climate of constant social media onslaught? That’s another debate, but a case could be made that if Williams had the tools of technology we do today, he could have protected his own personal story while controlling its narrative at the same time.

Unfortunately for Williams, he began his NFL career in 1999; five years before the launch of Facebook, seven years before the launch of Twitter, and 11 years before the launch of Instagram. The rise of the internet and social media now allow professional athletes to promote themselves while still maintaining the image they want to portray.

Now imagine a media landscape where Ricky Williams owns his own media company and interacts with his fans through his own social media accounts. Well, that’s exactly what he’s doing with his personal website, https://rickywilliams.life/, where site visitors can learn about Williams’ humble beginnings, his football career, his personal journey with cannabis, and even get a personal astrology reading from the man himself.

Instead of having to let the media control the narrative around Williams’ cannabis use, now he can do that through the story-telling on his website. Here’s an excerpt for example:

“In the middle of his accomplished NFL career, Ricky found cannabis and everything changed. At the time, he became synonymous with the negative stereotype of the lazy stoner. Undeterred by people’s ignorance, and inspired by the desire to understand his fascination with cannabis, Ricky set off to study the origins of cannabis in the foothills of the Himalayans. Ricky now lives the wisdom of what he discovered on his journey, and yes, it includes smoking weed daily.”

This modus operandi has also been employed by others. Tom Brady partnered with Michael Strahan and filmmaker Gotham Chopra to form Religion of Sports Media, while simultaneously crushing his Twitter and Instagram accounts daily with sneak peeks into his personal life or self-promoting whatever cool thing he has going on next.

If he wanted to, Brady could probably choose to never do another interview, and it would only marginally affect his popularity because he has a plethora of other ways to connect to his clamoring audience. It appears, tennis star Naomi Osaka has made the same determination in preserving her mental health over acquiescing to media bullies.

With 1 million followers on Twitter and 2.4 million more on Instagram, Osaka should be free to promote herself as she sees fit. I can guarantee plenty of tennis fans will still know who she is and want to buy tickets to see her play even if they can’t watch her giving obviously forced and uncomfortable post-match interviews that do nothing positive for her image anyway.

Sadly, Osaka made the hard decision to remove herself from the French Open tournament rather than subject herself to more media bullying. Happily, however, Osaka was able to completely control the narrative of this story by employing her own social media strategy of connecting with the fans she knew would be disappointed by her decision.

Those from the NFL circle hoped Osaka could pull a “Marshawn Lynch”, but Osaka has clearly made a bigger statement by not competing in the tournament at all.

Sometimes, creating awareness of an issue is the most effective strategy for eventually revolutionizing it. Not only do we need to create more awareness of mental health and wellness; we also need to create more empathy for those who are struggling with mental health. With empathy comes understanding and, through that understanding, we can hopefully affect necessary change.

“I understand that a lot of people, especially men, look up to me because of my profession, so I have a chance to reach out to people and let them know what I’ve been through and how treatment has made my life so much better,” Williams said. “If my story can help even one person to seek help, it will feel as though I’ve scored the game-winning touchdown.”