Ace of the Year: A Profile in Courage On and Off the Court
Sport has been an integral part of society for as long as there has been recorded history. So after so many pandemic shutdowns, it was truly uplifting in 2021 to see the return of organized sporting events and leagues, from small-town little leagues and high-school sports to college sports, top pro leagues and even the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics finally playing out in the summer of 2021.
We have so many to thank for their tremendous courage, planning and tenacity to bring this about. Players, team, coaches, parents, facilities personnel, governments, media companies, sponsors and -- so importantly -- fans all played big parts, and for their efforts we are so grateful.
However, among all the extraordinary work in the world of sports in 2021, what the Women’s Tennis Association and its CEO Steve Simon have been doing over these past two months in defense of Peng Shuai and the global effort to fight against sexual assault stands out.
On Nov. 2, 2021,, top WTA player Peng Shuai published allegations that she had been sexually assaulted by a top Chinese government official. Almost immediately, all mention of her on Chinese media and social platforms disappeared, as did her original post and allegations, and she became impossible to contact.
After repeated, unsuccessful attempts by friends, fellow players and WTA officials to reach out to her, Peng finally resurfaced publicly in several brief, controlled and choreographed settings within China, making placating statements that mirror what we have all seen all too often among those who have made sexual assault allegations against powerful figures upon whom their careers depend. Fortunately, the WTA and Steve Simon were not placated.
On Dec. 3, the WTA and Simon announced the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China and Hong Kong. The WTA called out the failure of those in control to listen to and appropriately respond to Peng Shuai’s assault allegations, the lack of transparency from the Chinese government and the attempts to pressure her to withdraw her allegations.
As Simon said, “None of this is acceptable, nor can it become acceptable.” This could not have been easy. The WTA hosts ten tournaments in China and Hong Kong, including several of the sport’s most lucrative and important events.
The WTA's stance is in contrast to the position of the International Olympic Committee, which determined not to push the government (the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics kick off in less than six weeks), arguing that diplomacy through sports is more powerful than taking hard stands on issues of human rights.
Of course, we probably all wish that the IOC could have done a “redo” when it took a similar stance in 1936 and chose not to deny Hitler and the Nazis a global stage and tacit acceptance of their anti-Semitic policies. Instead, the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics become a showcase for the regime’s racism and totalitarianism.
For sure, the suspension of WTA tournaments in China and Hong Kong will put pressure on the WTA’s revenues and will require economic sacrifice on the part of its players. I hope its sponsors will step up and fill the gap, recognizing that doing the right thing is one of the reasons that Simon, the women tennis athletes and its board have built the WTA into what is now probably the most valuable professional women’s sports franchises on the globe.
We salute you, Steve Simon and the Women’s Tennis Association. Thank you for standing up for sexual assault victims everywhere and doing the right thing.