It’s never just about the game.
Sports, and the athletes that dedicate their lives to them, are avatars for our society and values. It’s why LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” and why he won’t; why Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job in the National Football League; why men can pummel each other on the hockey rink and nobody bats an eye; and why MLB is currently seeing its first work stoppage in 26 years – a particularly apt battle in today’s times between owners and workers (although both parties are exceedingly well-compensated.)
And in the world of tennis, as in other industries, women are taking their rightful place. The women’s game has become the must-watch event, eclipsing the would-be John McEnroes with female athletes whose star power is as big as their serves. Peng Shuai, the 35-year-old Chinese tennis star, is one of these women who command a bright light.
On Nov. 2. when Shuai came forward to bravely speak out against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, accusing him of sexual assault, she joined the countless other women in recent years who have name their attackers, sometimes shaking the ground of industry, as in the case of disgraced movie titan Harvey Weinstein, and in Shuai’s case, shaping the contours of diplomacy.
The New York Times reports that it took the Chinese government 20 minutes to censor Shuai after she came forward, virtually disappearing her for two weeks and prompting a #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag campaign, outcry from her peers, a suspension of tournaments in Beijing and Hong Kong from WTA, and reigniting a call to boycott February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The International Olympics Committee reports to have had calls with Shuai in the weeks that followed, calls that IOC says confirms that she is safe and well. Human rights activists say otherwise.
It would be nice to consider sports as a kind of political Switzerland, a fabled land of neutrality, meritocracy, hard work, and sweat equity. But time and again we’ve seen that simply isn’t true. The sports world operates as a mirror, exposing the issues we have yet to reconcile off the court, whether it’s race and culture, the gender pay gap, issues surrounding public health, domestic violence, or sexuality.
Shuai is not the first to be censored by the Chinese government, but her success in the world of tennis has heightened her visibility and importance (read: “value”) off the court. In a world ruled by dollars and cents, boycotts and divestment operate as economic sanctions, not only sending a message, but cutting off revenue to bring bad state actors to heel. After all, it worked in South Africa, but I do wonder if today’s world has enough humanity left to do anything about human rights. Given that we are already doing such a piss poor job on the collective effort required to stem Covid spread, I wouldn’t bet on it.