Fri. Nov 26th, 2021

The disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai made headlines around the world last week as stars including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka took the unusual step of raising public concerns about the welfare of their fellow professional.

Peng, 35, vanished from public view for three weeks after alleging she had been sexually assaulted by a former high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party. After China’s state media released a series of statements on her behalf, Peng has since reappeared on a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee.

Peng resurfaced after the Women’s Tennis Association heaped pressure on China to prove that the athlete was safe, threatening to withdraw its money-spinning tour events from the country. The WTA remains unconvinced by the IOC video call and has questioned whether Peng is speaking “without censorship or coercion”.

The case underlines the ever-growing intersection between sport, business, and politics, as global sports brands are drawn into the debate over human rights, social equality, and even climate issues. As much as these institutions hate to get involved, modern sports are multi-billion dollar businesses, and like the biggest corporations, public image is everything.

The WTA’s threat to China was a brave, unprecedented move, as the organisation threatened to pull the plug on Chinese events estimated to be worth up to US$1 billion.

WTA chief executive Steve Simon has described the situation as “bigger than the business”. The comments were particularly noteworthy as sports bodies don’t have a great track record of getting these issues right – particularly when there’s money at stake.

In 2019, the NBA was criticised for failing to back team manager Daryl Morey, who had tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In a craven attempt to appease China and preserve its revenue from the major economy, the NBA called Morey’s tweet “regrettable”.

The same year, Premier League football club Arsenal took to Chinese social media site Weibo to distance itself from player Mesut Ozil, after the German raised awareness about the mistreatment of China’s Uyghur population. Arsenal said it “always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”.

In 2020, the commissioner of the NFL was forced to apologise to former player Colin Kaepernick after blacklisting him for peacefully protesting against racial injustice. Kaepernick and fellow player Eric Reid reached a legal settlement with the NFL after claiming franchises had colluded to freeze them out.

Social justice issues continue to draw sports bodies into uncomfortable territory.

Only last week, the chairman of the English Premier League was forced to resign after approving the takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, despite a public outcry over the state’s human rights abuses and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

There are signs that the tide is turning, and that sports have begun to recognise that social responsibility is as important as their income.

The Premier League has made more of an effort on social justice issues in recent times, supporting the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, backing players’ right to protest, and pushing an anti-racism campaign over the past season.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for sports teams to distance themselves from political and social events to try and preserve their business models. More stories like the ones above will emerge over the next few years, particularly around the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, amid growing calls for a boycott.

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