November 29, 2021

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WTA statement on Peng Shuai just words, but deeds promised if necessary

The worrisome news about former doubles No. 1 and top-15 singles player Peng Shuai has been circulating for nearly two weeks .

It was slow to pick up steam on social media but grew over the past weekend.

Open Court first Tweeted about it on … Nov. 2.

(It should be noted that, contrary to some of the news reports out there, there is little alleging sexual assault occurred. “That afternoon, I didn’t agree,” Peng wrote. And then, a little later, she writes, ‘I was terrified and anxious. Taking into consideration the affection I had for you seven years ago, I agreed.”

For the most part, and taking into consideration the vast gap in age and influence between them, it is the lovelorn poem of a broken heart. And just the self-loathing from Peng, about herself, is heartbreaking).

On Sunday afternoon – 12 days after the news first emerged – the WTA finally issued a statement from chairman and CEO Steve Simon about the situation.

“The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern. As an organization dedicated to women, we remain committed to the principles we were founded on – equality, opportunity and respect.

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.

“We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship. Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”

All talk, no rock

As usual from the WTA, it’s a statement full of words, but not deeds.

To be fair, the organization is in a difficult position.

But nowhere in there does it indicate it would use its contacts in China to try to find her – to try to make sure she is safe, and to offer her any support it can through what is clearly a concerning – and possibly dangerous – situation.

Nor does it indicate it will use all of the resources at its disposal in that country to help deal with the situation and ensure it is adequately investigated.

Later Sunday, Simon told the New York Times that through sources in China, the WTA believes that Peng is in Beijing.

“We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” Simon said.

The Chinese Tennis Association, of course, is hardly the most reliable source of information. And Simon added that no one – WTA officials, or even active players – has been able to reach her directly.

Simon spoke of Peng making “serious allegations”.

It’s unclear if he’s seen a translation of her since-deleted post on Weibo. But in fact she makes no “serious allegations” in the long post, which is more poignant than accusatory.

Here is a rough translation of the entire post from Peng.

Read the entire post, and draw your own conclusions.

Willing to take a stand, if necessary

Simon filled in some of the blanks in that word-filled statement in his remarks to Christopher Clarey of the Times.

He said that if the Chinese are not transparent with this case, the WTA is prepared to “make some decisions”, and will “not back off its position”.

“If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to,” Simon told the Times.

And then, hours later, there was this (also from the Times):

Putting all the eggs in China’s basket

We know that the WTA has put most of its revenue eggs in the China basket for the foreseeable future.

And all of that is on hold at the moment because of the fact that there haven’t been any tournaments in China since 2019.

That includes the last two editions of the WTA Finals, the organization’s crown jewel event, after a splashy announcement in 2018 about a new purpose-built arena (behind schedule), $14 million in prize money every year and nearly a billion dollars of investment by the Chinese.

After not being held in 2020, the WTA found the city of Guadalajara, Mexico willing to stage the event on very short notice this week, and with just over a third of that prize money.

Read us

Navigating tricky waters

So yes, it’s tricky. That has to be recognized. The WTA isn’t the only sports organization to try to tread carefully and walk on eggshells around the Chinese government.

And it may, proportionally, be the organization that is most dependent on it for a big chunk of its revenue.

They can “expect” a fair investigation, all they want. But they also can be fairly confident that won’t happen.

And then, what? Another statement?

That the organization has at least acknowledged the situation, many days after it occurred, is something.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll see if they are willing to go as far as they may need to.