The Tragedy of Peng Shuai and The Business of Politics in Sports

The Tragedy of Peng Shuai and The Business of Politics in Sports

By Mateo Zules '22; Photo by Visual China Group of Peng Shuai, famous female Chinese tennis player

Like many, I have been incredibly disturbed following the developments regarding the disappearance of the Chinese tennis player, Peng Shuai. On November 2nd she posted a letter that accused Zhang Gaoli, a Chinese politician of sexual assault on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The post was up for 30 minutes before it was taken down, then Peng Shuai disappeared from public life. Human Rights Groups and Tennis Officials became concerned for her well-being, concerns that were not quelled when they received an email that was supposedly from Peng Shuai saying that the allegations were false and that she was alright (One of the Chinese Communist Parties’ favorite damage control maneuvers). Tennis officials began demanding the Chinese government prove that she was alright. They received support from other athletes including Pau Gasol, Gerard Pique, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Novac Djokovic, and Serena Williams with thousands of people posting online “#WhereIsPengShuai”. After winning the ATP, 39-year-old French Tennis Player, Nicolas Mahut signed the camera “Where is Peng Shuai?” (https://twitter.com/TennisTV/status/1462442139749658628)

It was pretty amazing to see athletes standing together in solidarity with a peer of theirs. I waited for more American athletes to speak out in addition to Serena, after all, it seems that every year more and more athletes from major sports leagues speak their minds about social issues.

Finally, the first athlete in a major American sports league spoke out, Boston Celtics guard Enes Kanter, a Turk who has been critical of the regime in China and Turkey. While I appreciate the bravery of Kanter, it is very disappointing that he is the only one taking a stand and that more American athletes haven’t spoken out. I am hardly surprised though. How could I be? It has only been 2 years since Americans got a taste of Chinese censorship when Daryl Morey, The General Manager for the Houston Rockets, tweeted this:

Uh oh! One employee of the NBA (An American corporation) that has thousands of employees posted a vague statement praising freedom in Hong Kong. China met this horrific transgression with a swift and evenhanded response: They banned the NBA in their country.

The NBA threw Morey under the bus, blaming him for the comments. The league did everything it could to get back in the good graces of the Chinese government whose ban threatened hundreds of millions of dollars and revenue. The athletes in the NBA, facing an immense amount of pressure from the league, owners, and commercial partners were predominantly quiet on the issue. Lebron, one of the league’s biggest stars, even went as far as to call Morey “misinformed”(https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/14/us/lebron-james-nba-china-intl-hnk-scli/in dex.html).

This is a frightening trend that commercial interests can get American companies and its employees to participate in censorship and align with China’s political narratives. China seemingly imports American entertainment and exports censorship in return.

Athletes are going to be put in increasingly precarious positions politically since their claiming of political autonomy has seemingly coincided with a rise of authoritarian regimes in sports.

We can see this in basketball where Enes Kanter has called out LeBron James for not speaking out on the Uyghur genocide in China and being sponsored by Nike who allegedly uses forced labor from Uygur camps.

As much as I want to defend LeBron because of the amazing activism he has done in the United States, I can’t pretend that Kanter doesn’t have a point. Political movements are multifaceted and ignoring human rights abuses abroad is not only wrong, but hurts the framing of movements in the US that are fighting for rights domestically.

I don’t think this approach where athletes are going to try to discuss some political issues, but ignore those that pose a threat to business is sustainable. People don’t like hypocrisy and movements are too reliant on framing for advocates to not be consistent on these issues.

2022 is shaping up to be the year of authoritarian regimes in sports with Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics, Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup, and Saudi Arabia joining fellow Gulf State, the UAE as the owner of a premier league team. What happened to Peng Shuai will not be the last instance of a regime doing something reprehensible on one of sport’s biggest stages. Athletes should embrace standing against these regimes instead of stepping back.

Side note: As I have been writing, New York Times Columnist Andrew Keh published “Do Sports Still Need China?” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/24/sports/olympics/china-sports-peng-shuai-nba.html. He argues that China is not very popular with Americans and if forced to choose sports leagues would choose the rest of the world as consumers over China.

I think that Keh’s article supports what I am saying. Athletes should know that they will have more fan support when standing up against an entity like an authoritarian government because those aren’t well-liked.

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