Enterprising reporters can still get insight from news conferences, and many athletes don’t share Ms. Osaka’s stress about them. “It’s like pretty easygoing,” the Polish tennis player Iga Swiatek said last week. But while independent journalists can still deliver everything from breakthrough investigations to commentary, the role of journalism as a mere conduit for athletes’ words doesn’t make that much sense anymore. Ms. Osaka “could do a press conference on Instagram live if she wanted,” her agent, Stuart Duguid, told me.
The ritual is “a relic of an era when they needed the press — when the press were the accepted conduit between athletes and the public,” a Guardian sportswriter, Jonathan Liew, said in an interview.
But the Osaka story has broader resonance because sports, and the media that covers them, are often leading indicators of the direction in which we’re all headed. In 2007, Hillary Clinton’s top spokesman, Howard Wolfson, told me he was preoccupied with Major League Baseball’s site, MLB.com, and how the league had created a media entity that it totally controlled. Why couldn’t a politician and her campaign do the same, he wondered? It didn’t quite work for her, but by 2008, Barack Obama was producing videos far more compelling than anything the networks were making. In 2016, the Trump Show was the best thing on TV, syndicated to your local cable network.
The assault on the independent sports media reached its peak with the 2014 introduction of The Players’ Tribune, with the promise of giving players their own voice. But that effort pretty much fizzled, selling to an Israeli media company in 2019. Though it occasionally published powerful essays, it mostly had that sterile quality of a glorified news release.
Athletes’ more successful ventures into media have avoided taking on journalism directly. The model is the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who has spent a decade building a media company that has done deals for TV shows and movies with HBO, Netflix, Warner Brothers and others. And at its best, these platforms can elicit more than you’d get at a news conference. Mr. James built his company, in part, on the insight that athletes would open up to one another, and “didn’t want to be asked questions that everyone should know the answers to,” said Josh Pyatt, the co-head of WME Sports, who has been at the center of building media companies for athletes.
On a recent episode of “The Shop,” produced for HBO by Mr. James, the quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged the wooden quality of many athletes’ comments to the press.