As concerns over Peng Shuai mount, credit the WTA for doing what the NBA and others won't
Some things are more important than money.
It seems as though we hear a lot of people and companies say that, but very few actually act on it. For too many, when push comes to shove, the money is just too enticing.
The Women's Tennis Association, or WTA Tour, is showing what that practice really looks like as it stands up to global giant China in defense of one of its players, Peng Shuai.
There's a lot of concern for Peng's well-being right now, after the 35-year-old took to Weibo, China's version of Twitter, to write a detailed post that included a sexual assault allegation against a high-ranking now-former vice premier in the country, Zhang Gaoli. Peng alleged that she and Zhang had an on-and-off consensual relationship, but three years ago, he coerced her into sex after she'd told him no more than once.
The Chinese government scrubbed Peng's post in less than 30 minutes, but not before it was captured by others and sent around the world. Any references to her post were also deleted, and for a time, even references to and discussions of "tennis" online were limited.
She wasn't seen for a couple of weeks, leading to the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter, along with fellow WTA Tour members expressing concern on social media. On Sunday, Peng surfaced at a cross country skiing event in Shanghai and was interviewed by a Chinese-language newspaper based in Singapore but known to be pro-Beijing.
During the interview, she made a curious statement — "I want to stress a very important point: I never said or wrote that anyone sexually assaulted me," which goes entirely against what she had initially posted on Weibo, and added "there may have been misunderstandings by everyone."
Unsurprisingly, the IOC, no real enemy of human rights violators, has done its part to spread China's propaganda, claiming it was satisfied Peng was fine after IOC head Thomas Bach spoke with her via video call on Nov. 21.
But anyone who understands how China works doesn't feel any better about Peng's safety after her most recent interview and believes that the government essentially forced her to recant her accusation against Zhang, who was the public face of getting the upcoming Winter Olympics to China. Even for someone who doesn't speak the language, it seems awkward and forced; it's not often you hear an adult woman say, "I've been very free all along."
The only entity which seems truly invested in Peng's safety is the WTA. After her most recent public appearance was unconvincing, the Tour put out a statement saying it hasn't been able to independently contact Peng, and continued its call "for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern."
This is after the Tour took the extraordinary step of saying it is pulling out of China, despite it meaning a huge financial loss — up to one-third of its revenue — for the organization.
Three years ago, the WTA signed a contract with the Chinese city of Shenzen to host its year-ending Finals tournament, with the promise of millions in prize money, unlike any amount seen in Tour history. Ash Barty, who won the Finals in 2019, their first year in Shenzen, received $4.4 million for her victory, more than any woman or man had ever won at a tennis tournament.
It was one of several tournaments in the country, but as of right now, the WTA has suspended all tournaments in China. By standing up to the country, the WTA has done what major American companies and leagues (hello, NBA) with far greater resources and deeper pockets will not.
When WTA chairman Steve Simon announced the decision on China on Dec. 1, he said he did so with the full support of the WTA's board of directors. Fifty-one years ago, Billie Jean King and eight other women's tennis players each signed $1 contracts to play for the Virginia Slims Series, the precursor to the WTA; those women stood together then, and all these years later current and former players are standing together for Peng.
It shouldn't be lost on us that once again it is women athletes leading the way on civil and human rights. The WNBA showed us in 2020 what it looks like to lead, and now the WTA is doing the same.
As Simon told Sports Illustrated for a recent story, "Some things are more important than money."