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When a crisis demanded that the real Steve Simon stand up, he did so—and stood tall
The WTA Chairman and CEO's stand on the mysterious disappearance of Peng Shuai sent shock waves through a sporting world that has been too busy fattening its bottom line on the Chinese frontier.
Published Nov 29, 2021
TC LIVE: Simon interviewed by Jon Wertheim
The real Steve Simon has finally stood up.
Simon, the WTA Chairman and CEO since 2015, has been a somewhat chameleon-like presence in professional tennis. He slipped without fanfare into tennis’s big leagues in 2004, taking over as the tournament director for the Indian Wells combined event. Owlish, measured, his words carefully scrubbed of color, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid attention while establishing himself as a deft administrator and rainmaker. He never stood out. When Simon lined up with the finalists and officials for the obligatory group photo at the Indian Wells trophy presentation, you may have wondered, “Who’s that, the accountant?”
Well, Steve Simon certainly stands out now. He’s been leading less like an accountant than a field general.
Simon’s principled stand on the mysterious disappearance of Chinese WTA pro Peng Shuai—including his ongoing call for an open, transparent investigation—sent shock waves through a sporting world that has been too busy fattening its bottom line on the Chinese frontier to challenge the imperious ways of the Chinese Communist Party.
To review: In the first week of November Peng, the 36-year old former No. 1 WTA doubles player, made serious allegations on-line of sexual abuse against a top Chinese government official. Her post on the Weibo social media website, and all related matters, quickly disappeared. So did Peng.
When an outcry arose, the CCP engaged in some clumsy attempts at damage control that, had Simon bought into it, might have helped contain the controversy. But he demanded assurances that Peng was safe and enjoyed freedom. He demanded a transparent, uncensored investigation. He was prepared to go nuclear to try to get that done.
"We've had a lot of success [in China]," Simon told CNN in an interview. "I think that when you look at this, though, there are too many times in our world today when we get into issues like this and we let business, politics, money dictate what's right and what's wrong... We have to start as a world making decisions that are based on right and wrong, period."
In case his opinion was taken for mere virtue signalling, he added, “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it.”
Thanks to Simon, the International Olympic Committee, the NBA, and numerous other entities that, eyes averted, do business with China now look less like the CCP’s partners than the well-compensated minions of a repressive regime steeped in authoritarian ways and human rights abuses.
This was a development nobody could have foreseen for other reasons as well. Simon was the guy who negotiated the 2019 deal that moved the WTA Finals to Shenzhen, China, where winner Ash Barty carried off an obscene (another subject, another time) $4.42 top prize (the largest amount of prize money ever awarded in tennis). It did not help his image when Simon’s first statement when WTA star attraction Maria Sharapova was suspended for doping contained greater admiration for Sharapova than concern for the women who might have been denied a level playing field for competition by Sharapova’s cheating.
“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria,’ Simon’s statement began. “Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity.”
When numerous players, including elite ones, objected to tournaments offering the Russian star wild cards when her suspension was finally lifted, Simon sided with Sharapova and the promoters who were scrambling to cash in on her reappearance.
Simon’s reaction to the plight of Peng must have hit the CCP like an unexpected gut punch. A massive portion of the WTA’s revenue originates in China (The WTA had scheduled 10 tournaments in China in 2022), thanks in large part to Simon’s skill as a negotiator. Hardliners in the CCP were not the only ones taken by surprise. IOC officials, reluctant to challenge the CCP but worried about the growing calls for a boycott of the upcoming winter Olympic Games (in Beijing), tried to defuse the situation as intermediaries. They accomplished little while rattling on about “quiet diplomacy” - a term easily confused with the word, “appeasement.”
Some believe that Simon’s reaction has been excessive. The WTA (and ATP) certainly hold tournaments in other nations with authoritarian rulers, so why pick on China?
Because Peng has a face and a name. Because the chain of events that led to her disappearance—whatever the truth about Peng’s allegations—are crystal clear and well-documented. Because as an organization—even one dedicated to fun and games—the WTA simply could no more look away, whistling, than could the captain of a ship when his daily head count comes up one deckhand short.
Lest you misunderstand the stakes for the WTA, an impasse leading to a break with China could amount to a billion dollar-plus loss of revenue. But think also of the permanent damage done to the image of China should the WTA, perhaps even the ATP, pull up stakes. The danger for the Chinese: loss of face and a snowballing resistance movement in the west.
When a crisis demanded that the real Steve Simon stand up, he did so. And he stood tall.