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Naomi Osaka – The case of Disability Discrimination

Posted on 4th June, 2021


Naomi Osaka, who is currently ranked as the world’s number two female tennis player, withdrew from the French Open (one of the sport’s four most prestigious “Grand Slam” events) after winning her opening match due to the controversy over her decision not to speak to the media following her matches to protect her mental health.

By way of a little background, Grand Slam rules require all players, win or lose, to speak to the media and if they do not fulfil their media obligations they can be fined. Naomi Osaka announced and wrote to the Grand Slam before the tournament started to say that she would not take questions from the media, citing the impact of news conferences on her mental health. Osaka won her first match and gave an on-court interview but did not do the usual post-match media interviews, she was then fined by the tournament organisers and later threatened that she would face “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions”.

The 23-year-old then withdrew from the tournament so that she was not a distraction and to concentrate on her mental health, whilst announcing that she has been suffering with long bouts of depression since she won her first Grand Slam in 2018.

So, what has this got to do with Employment Law? Well, tournament organisers owe a duty of care to participants and must abide by equality laws. Would Osaka have any potential claims against the tournament organisers if an employer-employee relationship existed and this same scenario occurred within the UK jurisdiction?

It is likely, considering Osaka’s history of depression that her condition will amount to a disability as The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as “any physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and therefore she would be protected from discrimination because of her disability.

Given that Osaka explained that she did not want to speak to the media due to her mental health and has written to the organisers privately, it will be very difficult for the tournament organisers to say that they did not have at least constructive knowledge of Osaka’s disability.

Finally, Osaka would be able to argue that as a consequence of her disability, the tournaments rules regarding post-match media obligations have a greater detrimental effect on the her than it would have on other players who do not share her disability.

Once Osaka has established that she has a disability, the tournament organisers would have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to avoid any disadvantage to her. The Grand Slam rules on media obligations could amount to a provision, criterion or practice which put Osaka at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with persons who do not share her disability and I would suggest that not speaking to media after matches would be considered a reasonable request in the circumstances.

If Osaka and the Grand Slam organisers were in an employment relationship, for the reasons stated above that Osaka would have fairly strong claims of disability discrimination and a failure to make reasonable adjustments  against the tournament organisers as she would be able to satisfy the various conditions for these claims.

Unfortunately for Naomi Osaka she would not be considered to be employed by the Grand Slam organisers (as similarly Jess Varnish was not found to be employed by British Cycling and UK Sport), and the organisers are unlikely to be ‘service providers’ (in accordance with the Equality Act 2010) and therefore no duty or liability would arise.

Mental health is rightly an important conversation right now and the Grand Slam organisers should have handled the situation better. Thankfully, they have changed tones, being markedly more supportive and talking of creating meaningful improvements to the player experience at tournaments, which will hopefully see the return of one of the sport’s brightest stars.

For more information about disability discrimination and reasonable adjustments, please contact Matthew Rowlinson, Employment Solicitor at Jacksons Law Firm e: t: 0191 206 9617.

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