The Media and the Dehumanisation of Athletes – Labour Article


The Media and the Dehumanisation of Athletes – Labour Article

From Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka, the past year of athletes in the media has posed a question; has the stigmatization of mental health truly been removed? Specifically, concerning our modern-day superhumans. And whether the media’s input has led to a portrayal of athletes who are physically capable as automatically being free of mental health struggles. 

The media’s critical approach and subsequent arm to mental health have been a concern for years. But, recently, it was brought to the spotlight. In May 2021, Naomi Osaka, tennis player and four-time Grand Slam Champion, received a fine of $15,000 for not participating in a post-match conference during the French Open. 

Osaka went on to explain the reasoning behind her step back from the conferences, pointing towards mental health concerns. Having participated in media before, she expressed her love for the press. She said this despite the uncertainty surrounding all press conferences, especially due to the mental impact of the outdated tone; “subject vs. object”, as opposed to “peer to peer”. 

Despite her explanation and concerns of her mentality, Osaka was informed “should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences”. This statement on behalf of all 4 Grand Slam Tournaments was criticised by many. Its distinct lack of understanding towards the importance of prioritising mental health was disappointing.

Following this, in July 2021, gymnast Simone Biles was forced to withdraw from defending her Olympic titles due to concerns surrounding her mental state. The high-risk nature of her routines meant that it was dangerous to perform them when not feeling 100%. 

The response included harsh criticism from broadcaster Piers Morgan, who mocked Biles in his Daily Mail column: “there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’”. However, this received backlash. Many came to defend athletes, highlighting the dangers of defining their worth on their physical success, in turn denying the value of their mental health.

Biles responded with a warning to be “mindful of what you say online”. She went on to share the death of her aunt during the Olympics and the importance of realising the media has “no idea what these athletes are going through as well as their sports”. 

Again, the issue arose when the England Football Team was flooded with hate when failing to win the Europ final on penalties. Along with overall hate, three players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka – were subjected to racial abuse. 

This was not the first case. In May 2021, Rashford shared having received at least “70 racial slurs” for a loss. He joked with “for those working to make me feel any worse than I already do, good luck trying”. But the scale of hate after the Euros led to UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, taking to Twitter to defend the players as they should be “lauded as heroes”, telling those participating in the hate to be “ashamed of themselves”.

Following these examples of the media’s poor treatment of sportspersons, it is clear that the media does not allow for any athlete to prioritise their mental health over their physical successes. This raises the question of the dehumanisation of athletes. 

Both instances involving Osaka and Biles, along with the treatment of the England Football Players, support the argument that society fails to recognise these physical superhumans as simply human beings. There is a failure in accepting the need for every individual, including athletes, to prioritise mental health over success and awards. As well as recognising the treatment of these individuals online as having an impact on their mental health. 

In support of this, former track cyclist Callum Skinner expressed support towards athletes prioritising mental health over their physical achievement. For him, winning Gold in the commonwealth was not a “magical cure” of his depression diagnosis. Therefore, despite the criticism, the normalisation of athletes being physically in shape, but not mentally, is a positive. It is not at all leading to “the death of sport”. 

Written by Guest Labour Writer, Kristen Taylor

Point of Information

People are too distant from athletes – A Conservative Response

The arguments in the main article are fair. But the problem does not just stem from the media and social media. The people watching the sports are just so distant from the athletes that they ‘dehumanise’ them, to quote the main article.

Whilst all the examples given in the main article are certainly important, arguably they just all go to show that normal people cannot relate to any large extent with the struggles athletes face at the top levels. After eighteen months of being locked down, it is possible that people are desensitised to the struggle of others. Of course, that includes athletes.

But one must be careful when saying that athletes are wholly dehumanised. By both the media and society. For example, look at Joe Marler. Anyone who has watched any English rugby knows who Joe Marler is, and he gave the most heart-warming post-match interview earlier this year once fans were allowed back into stadiums to watch their teams play.

So, if the media are able to present athletes as normal people, why do they not do it all the time?

As said at the start, it is because people cannot relate to the struggles and difficulties of participating in such high levels of sport, such as the Olympics. When we see an athlete fail, we cannot truly comprehend how many thousands of hours of work they have put in even to reach the Olympics, let alone win.

Even if you have followed an athlete from the beginning; watched all their interviews; and read all their books, you have probably only been able to see about ten percent of the effort they have put in. As a result, this makes it easier for the athletes to be dehumanised as we hold misconceptions about how difficult it is to actually perform at their level.

So, when athletes fail or do not partake in interviews, we do not appreciate the reasons why. It is easy for us to think that they are ungrateful or arrogant. Thinking themselves above interviews. When, in reality, they have their own lives to deal with on top of their sport.

Overall, my colleague has raised some fair arguments in the main article. A lot of athletes certainly are not given the appreciation they deserve for competing at the highest levels. They have to juggle the stresses of competing, whilst also receiving great amounts of abuse. In reality, if their job were not as incredibly difficult, more of us would compete at such high levels. This is the message the media needs to convey more often.  

Written by Co-Deputy Chief of Conservatives, Peter Pearce 

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Athletes are no different to us – A Liberal Response

Kristen raises some very valid points in her article. I would, however, argue that watching athletes compete in empty stadiums for the past 18 months has helped to humanise them. Without fans, suddenly the spectacle of the event shifts. Previously, athletes were seen as entertainment figures who solely existed to do gymnastics, play tennis or play football. Their personal lives were never considered. This led to the symptoms that both Kristen and Peter describe; a complete detachment from athletes as people.

With the empty stands at the Olympics, viewers instead became far more aware of the individual achievements and individual efforts. Watching Olympians celebrate in an empty stadium revealed considerable amounts. They aren’t celebrating for the fans, they are celebrating their own unique journey and efforts.

The tide is starting to turn in public discourse. But yet, as Kristen points out, the media are far, far away from matching this. To them, athletes simply exist to fill the back pages and to sell copies. It seems absurd that the media are unable to deal with anything other than sporting accomplishments. Any story that creeps towards the front pages is often an attack on their personal life in some regard.

At the end of the day, athletes, regardless of their sport or stature, are no different from us. Whilst their sport is a major part of their life, they also have their own completely private life and struggles that make them human. The media’s vilification of anything that isn’t perfect in their lives is simply unfair. Nobody is perfect, and that is what makes us human. 

Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Luca Boyd

Kristen Taylor
Guest Labour Writer | Website
Peter Pearce
Deputy Chief of Conservatives | Website

I am going into my second year at the University of Exeter studying a flexible combined honour in Geography and Politics. My interest in politics and geography stems from an interest in current events and the wider world, with geography being the study of all world processes.

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