TC Live in November: An interview with Steve Simon

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For an allegedly staid sport, tennis has done its share of world-shaking. In 1973, Billie Jean king beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes and struck a blow for women athletes that still resonates today. The same year, Arthur Ashe made the controversial decision to play in South Africa. The sight of a black man competing with, and beating, white opponents put a tiny crack in the apartheid government’s wall of supremacist propaganda. It took two decades, but that wall eventually came crashing down. In 1975, an 18-year-old Martina Navratilova defected from Soviet-backed Czechoslovakia to the U.S., and went on to become the best player of her era.

The story of Peng Shuai and her struggle with the Chinese government contains echoes of King's, Ashe's, and Navratilova's fights. Could it plant the same slow-growing seed of change that theirs did?

Like Ashe, Peng has challenged a seemingly unchallengeable authoritarian regime. In November she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of pressuring her into sex. “I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was,” she wrote in a deleted Weibo post, “and how many times I asked myself, ‘Am I still human?’”

The government’s reaction was predictably swift and ominously thorough. All public discussion of Peng was censored. Soon after, she vanished from public life, appearing only in choreographed TV interviews, her whereabouts unknown.

What wasn’t predictable was the reaction from the women’s tour.

In the past, organizations like the NBA and the Premier League have distanced themselves from owners and players who criticized China’s human rights record. The IOC pushed aside concerns about that record, and about Peng, and will hold its Winter Games in Beijing. The reasons are obvious: There’s too much money at stake in the country’s 1.4 billion person market.

The #WhereIsPengShuai movement was represented at a protest in Toulouse against sexual violence and patriarchy.

The #WhereIsPengShuai movement was represented at a protest in Toulouse against sexual violence and patriarchy.

The WTA has raked in its share of that money. In 2019, the tour signed a 10-year deal to hold its year-end finals in Shenzhen, with a $14 million annual purse. This time, though, the man who helped ink that deal, WTA chairman Steve Simon, chose principle over payouts.

“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source,” Simon said. “Her allegation must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.”

A few weeks later, Simon put his tour’s money where its mouth was, by suspending the WTA’s tournaments in China, and taking a significant financial hit.

Here was the game of BJK flexing its progressive muscle. Tennis, with its dual-gender history and world-famous women athletes, was uniquely positioned to back up one of those women in her #MeToo complaint. After Simon made his statement, top players, male and female, voiced their support. Together they may not make a crack in China’s authoritarian wall, but they have shown that it’s possible to talk back to it.

Peng’s well-being remains priority No. 1. Unfortunately, we don’t know how her situation will end, or what effect it might have going forward. China seems to have settled on a policy of silence, hoping that the world will move on. The ATP, so far, has also been silent on whether it will consider suspending its own events in China. It seems safe to say that the country’s money will continue to be tempting to all sports organizations.

Yet as Ashe and King showed, tennis’ international reach and male-female player base makes it capable of defying the status quo and creating change on a global scale. Here’s to Peng and Simon for having the courage to keep that world-shaking legacy alive. May the seed they’ve planted continue to grow.