A remarkable scene occurred Wednesday night in Guadalajara, Mexico at the championship event of the Women’s Tennis Association’s season. 

Barbora Krajcikova with Katerina Siniakova in Czech won doubles. At the trophy ceremony, Martina Navratilova sat down in front of her and she spoke of the 32nd anniversary, the Velvet Revolution. These demonstrations helped to bring down the nondemocratic, communist government in Czechoslovakia. Navratilova fled from it in 1975. 

“Thanks to them and their sacrifice, today my generation can live in a beautiful country back home and live without any restrictions and also with freedom,” Krejcikova said as Navratilova wiped away tears in the background. 

It wasn’t lost on anyone who follows tennis that this incredible moment occurred at a tournament that, if not for COVID-19, would have been held in Shenzhen, a Chinese city of 17 million just across the border from Hong Kong. 

The WTA was the only sports league to refuse to submit to Chinese censorship or to ignore human rights. In the autumn of 2019, eight Chinese tournaments were sanctioned by the WTA. This amount is hard to match in any other part of the world. 

When Ash Barty won the WTA Finals singles title, she took home $4.42 million — significantly more than the $2.6 million payday for winning the French Open earlier that year. For women’s tennis, the choice to park their tour in China between the U.S. Open and the Australian Open did not look like a luxury but rather a necessary element of doing business that made a lot of people a lot of money. 

But in the wake of former Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after she alleged that a former government official sexually assaulted her, the WTA is embracing a fundamental truth that the rest of sports has tried desperately to avoid. When it comes to China’s abuses, there are only two choices: Either you sign up for the lies or you walk away. 

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Now it is clear that WTA will become the first sporting organization to have the fortitude and courage to achieve the former. 

In an interview Thursday night with CNN’s Erin Burnett, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon doubled down on the notion that Shuai’s disappearance could be the breaking point between women’s tennis and China regardless of the financial ramifications. 

“When you look at this, there’s too many times in our world today where we get into issues like this where we let business, politics money dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “When we have a young person who has the fortitude to step up and make these allegations, knowing full well what the results of that are going to be, for us to not support that and demand justice as we go through it, we have to start as a world making decisions that are based upon right and wrong, period and we can’t compromise that and we’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly bigger than the business.”

As with every major sports, tennis is eager to get into China. It was just like Yao Ming helping the NBA establish a strong foothold culturally and financially in China. This made it a huge deal for tennis to win the Australian Open 2011 and French Open 2011. Though not as reliant on China as the women’s tour, the ATP also had a three-week fall swing through the country culminating with a Masters 1000 series event in Shanghai. 

From a business standpoint, it is understandable why no Western company would want to shut down those doors. The Chinese government may be harmed or challenged. This is what Daryl Morey, former Houston Rockets general manager, did when he posted a pro-democracy Tweet about Hong Kong. It was completely insensitive to American sensibilities.

Even last month, the NBA’s Chinese streaming partner Tencent pulled Boston Celtics games off the air after Enes Kanter called Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” in a video promoting independence for Tibet.

But with a famous athlete’s life at stake, the Shuai situation has made it increasingly clear that there’s no amount of toe-tapping or diplomatically-worded statements that will preserve any semblance of appropriate balance between the values of Western sports and Chinese repression. 

Trade agreements are the government’s responsibility. They also need to keep world peace and order. When their real objective is to pocket as much cash as possible, it is not the NBA’s or IOC’s job to play pretend diplomacy with sports. 

The pandemic is in a way an accident that has shown how unimportant it is to continue this con for Chinese appeasement. 

Though there have been some holes in the fall schedules of both the men’s and women’s tennis tours — and certainly less money up for grabs — they’ve learned to live without China over the last two years. 

It’s no small matter that instead playing for a $14 million prize money pool in Shenzhen, the top-ranked women played for $5 million this week in Guadalajara. But the way China has tried to hide and distort Shuai’s accusations while nobody in women’s tennis can guarantee her safety has crystalized the choice that must be made.

“If we have to detach ourselves from China because it no longer sticks to our values, we have to do it even if we are losing a little economically,” French player Alize Cornet told the French publication L’Equipe. “There are enormous sums at stake but we cannot remain silent for the purse money.” 

The WTA will have to pay a lot more to end its relationship with China than it is worth. No sports organization can coerce the Chinese government to do what’s right, but women’s tennis is proving that you don’t have to be complicit in whitewashing what’s wrong. 

Source: USAToday.com

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