While the tennis world obsesses over Emma Raducanu’s coach, the Guadalajara results and groupings in Turin, we have a real crisis. In short strokes. Last week, on Nov. 2, the recently retired WTA veteran Peng Shuai took to Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, to give an account of being sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party.
The account has since been taken down and comments have been disabled. And no one within China can read about this. Any and all reference to this matter—which has been covered everywhere from the BBC to The New York Times to Al Jazeera—has been scrubbed from Chinese search engines. And now comes news that Shuai has “disappeared,” which would be in keeping with China’s treatment of high-profile dissenters. It’s deeply disturbing and concerning. It’s terrible for Shuai, whose safety is paramount.
It’s a considerable crisis for the WTA Tour. It’s also a considerable opportunity for the WTA Tour.
It’s no secret that doing business in and with China can be—and often is—deeply problematic. Ask Apple. Ask Nike. Ask the NBA. Ask NBC, which has to negotiate how and whether it wants to address human-rights abuses and the Uyghur genocide and lifetime appointments during its Olympic coverage. (Bob Costas will tell you this is why he chooses not to be part of the coverage.) The 2008 Beijing Games that were supposed to liberalize China made its regime only more brazen in rejecting liberal democracy and human rights.
We all have different thresholds for outrage. Companies and humans are good at holding their noses and rationalizing bad acts, especially when there’s money to be made. In tennis, though, we are at a different point. This isn’t just sweeping human-rights abuses and something systemically untroubling. This is a player—a longstanding, top-flight, well-liked veteran—caught in the gears and reportedly “missing.” How, in any kind of conscience—much less, good conscience—can the WTA continue engaging here? How can players who have global brands and have, admirably, used their platform to speak credibly about other forms of social justice, abide by this?
The WTA must ask itself a simple question: What does it stand for? What is its objective? If it’s simply to maximize revenues, it will stay in China, where a dozen events are held, more than in any other country. If the WTA has terms beyond the mercenary, it must demand transparency and action. And be prepared to get out, to stop doing business in a country so unaligned with its purported mission. Bravo to Steve Simon for stating as much, to The New York Times: “We would be prepared to take that step and not operate out business in China.” Now for the follow-through …
Leaving China will come at a steep price. Ash Barty won more money at the 2019 WTA Finals event in Shenzhen than the entire purse for this year’s event. I’m told that China is responsible for at least one-third of the WTA revenues. Yet leaving China also lets the WTA distinguish itself for principles. What a statement this would send—especially with a Winter Olympics months away. What a way to say, “Our athletes’ safety and or moral principles—our belief in women’s rights, human rights and democracy—matter more than our balance sheets.”
This marks a real moment of truth and reckoning for the WTA. Here’s a pep talk: Believe in your product. Believe in your players. Believe in your international appeal. Believe that the market will reward backbone.