Opinion: WTA shows what leadership is in standing up to China and supporting Peng Shuai

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Shuai Peng
    Shuai Peng
    Chinese female tennis player (1986-)

When the history of this often rudderless, unmoored, disappointing and even despicable time in worldwide leadership in all areas of international life, politics and culture is written, there will be a joyous footnote, and it will tell the story of what the Women’s Tennis Association did in late 2021.

On Wednesday afternoon, the WTA announced that it was moving ahead with what it has been threatening to do for nearly two weeks:

It immediately suspended all of its tournaments in China and Hong Kong after being rebuffed in its various attempts and demands to communicate with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who said a month ago that she was sexually assaulted by a top Chinese official and then alarmingly disappeared from public view.

Now that’s how you handle a bully. Pop him in the nose.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has rarely been seen in public in recent weeks after causing an international uproar by accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has rarely been seen in public in recent weeks after causing an international uproar by accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault.

While sports leagues and organizations from the International Olympic Committee to the NBA have repeatedly cowered rather than confront China over its massive human rights abuses in a meaningful and powerful way, the WTA has put on a master class in responsible and admirable leadership.

It said it was willing to lose millions of dollars by doing the right thing — and then it went ahead and did just that.

“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete (in China and Hong Kong) when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement. “Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”

SUSPENDED: WTA suspends tennis events in China over concern for Peng Shuai

This is what Peng, a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian, wrote on Chinese social media about being sexually assaulted in a post that disappeared within minutes on Nov. 2:

“Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you,” she said.

“She knew the dangers she would face,” Simon said in his statement, “yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage. … I have serious doubts that (Peng) is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation — without censorship — into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.”

Let’s compare and contrast this majestic call for justice and accountability with the pathetic manner in which another major player in Chinese sports, the IOC, has gone about its business.

Its calls for “quiet diplomacy” reek of appeasement of their two-time Olympic business partners, first in 2008 for the Beijing Summer Games, now for the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Games, scheduled to begin Feb. 4.

Then, almost magically, a photo of a video conference call appeared with IOC President Thomas Bach and Peng on Nov. 21. The IOC said Peng thanked them for their concern and said she is “safe and well.”

The WTA was not represented on the call. There was no way to know who else was in the room with Peng. No video or audio was provided of Peng talking.

That was bad. This was worse: In its statement about the call, the IOC did not mention Peng’s sexual assault allegation.

I emailed IOC spokesman Mark Adams to ask why that was missing.

“You'll appreciate that this was a personal conversation and that in the circumstances it would not be correct to publicly discuss every aspect of what was said,” Adams wrote a week ago about what of course has become a worldwide #MeToo issue.

The WTA gets that. It gets every bit of it.

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable,” Simon said. "If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

And so he didn’t, providing the gold standard of behavior and leadership for our times.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WTA stands up to China for Peng Shuai and demonstrates real leadership