WTA President and CEO Steve Simon did not set out to lead the way for how sports should confront China when he announced that the women’s tennis tour would suspend tournaments there because of concerns about former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai’s well-being.
And based on initial reactions Thursday to the WTA’s groundbreaking stance, including from the International Olympic Committee — which is set to open the Beijing Winter Games in two months — along with the men’s tennis tour and International Tennis Federation, no one seems too eager to follow suit with the sorts of actions that would come with a real financial hit.
“I’m not looking to send a message to any other sport bodies or influence their decisions or evaluate their decisions. This is a WTA decision that affected the WTA athlete and our core principles,” Simon said in a video call with The Associated Press on Wednesday. “And I think it goes beyond that, into obviously something very, very sensitive on a worldwide basis for women, in general. So as the leading women’s sports organization, and having a direct effect on this, we’re focused on that.
“Now I will encourage everybody that has supported us to date — and those that haven’t — to continue speaking out and talk about this very important topic. But as far as what they need to do for their business interests and for their reasons, they need to make their own decisions. And I’m not looking to influence that.”
The WTA is the first sports body to publicly and directly challenge China’s authoritarian government, which is a source of billions in income across sports based elsewhere, such as the Olympics, tennis, the NBA, and golf.
Audrye Wong, a political scientist who researches Chinese politics at the University of Southern California, is skeptical that Simon’s group will have company.
“This is a brave and commendable move by the WTA, but I doubt that many other sports bodies or businesses will follow in the WTA’s footsteps,” Wong wrote in an email to the AP.
One indication came from the world of tennis in statements issued Thursday by the ITF, which oversees the Grand Slam tournaments and other events globally, and the CEO of the men’s ATP Tour: Neither made any mention of China or the WTA suspension.
Wong said Chinese citizens might be asked to boycott foreign products connected to tennis — and it’s possible the WTA’s move could lead to more political repression.
“Unfortunately, foreign pressure will also heighten CCP (Chinese Communist Party) fears that social movements such as #MeToo pose a threat to regime stability and have to be cracked down on more harshly,” she wrote.
The 35-year-old Peng, a three-time Olympian, and former No. 1-ranked doubles player, dropped out of public view after making sexual assault allegations a month ago against Zhang Gaoli, who retired in 2018 from the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China.
Her accusations, posted on social media, were scrubbed from China’s tightly censored internet within a half-hour. Peng then dropped from public view. The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media; online discussion of it has been highly censored.
Indeed, it appears few in the country even know about Peng’s allegations or the fallout — or why they might see less tennis there next season.
Simon — who noted that he had the full backing of the WTA Board of Directors, players, tournaments, and sponsors — said the tour would not hold events in China until the government there agrees to conduct a full investigation of Peng’s allegations and offers the WTA a chance for direct communication with her. He said that could extend beyond 2022.
There are about 10 WTA tournaments annually in China, including the season-ending Tour Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade.
“I don’t know how to give you a number of what the actual effect will be, but it will be millions of dollars, for sure. And, you know, time will tell, based upon what comes our way, how deep and how much further that goes. I’ll just say that it’s significant, for sure. It’s going to be significant,” Simon told the AP. “And it’s something that we’re going to have to manage and work our way through. But I’m confident we’ll find a way to manage and work our way through it.”
There was barely a reaction from China’s government Thursday to the WTA’s move. Asked about the tournament suspension and Peng’s safety, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin refused to address either.
“We are always firmly opposed to acts that politicize sports,” Wang told journalists at a daily briefing.
The IOC said Thursday it held a second call with Peng; there also was one on Nov. 21. In both instances, the IOC did not release any audio, video or a transcript, explain how the contact was arranged, nor say if there was any discussion of Peng’s sexual assault allegations.
The IOC said it would “stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January,” shortly before the lucrative Beijing Games are scheduled to start on Feb. 4.
After the initial IOC call with Peng, Mary Gallagher, a China expert at the University of Michigan, said: “The IOC response is unpersuasive to everyone except to the Chinese government, which is the entity that it most needs to please.”
Diana Fu, who teaches at the University of Toronto and researches China state control, said any communication Peng has had so far likely was scripted. She said the messaging was aimed outside China; if Peng’s case were widely known about inside the country, according to Fu, it could serve as a catalyst for the #MeToo movement.
“A sex scandal, in itself, is not crippling for the Party,” Fu said. “But viral online discussion of it, with the possibility of re-igniting a fledgling #MeToo movement in China, is feared by Beijing.
“Given that Beijing recently brought the NBA to its knees over the Houston Rockets general manager’s support of Hong Kong, it will likely be very hard for the WTA to corner China,” Fu added. “By standing with Peng Shuai, the WTA is riding the tiger. Once on the tiger’s back, it will be hard to dismount without suffering consequences.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.