No Exception for “Princess of China”: China’s Silencing of Peng Shuai

Editor’s note: I am proud to share this excellent piece, on the global fallout and sport-governance implications of tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusations against China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli. The author who wishes to remain anonymous. I can vouch 100% for the author’s expertise on the subject.–Tolga


*Habitually for Chinese names, the family name precedes the given name, and they are written as such in this article. For example, for Peng Shuai, Peng is the family name, and Shuai is the given name.

**ATP = Association of Tennis Players (men’s professional circuit); WTA = Women’s Tennis Association (women’s professional circuit); ITF = International Tennis Federation (international governing body of tennis, organizer of Grand Slams, Olympic/Regional Games tennis events, and low-tier professional events, and enforcer of anti-doping rules); IOC = International Olympic Committee.

Chapter I Peng Shuai and the Rise of China’s Women’s Tennis

On the world stage, Chinese tennis has always effectively been Chinese women’s tennis. Compared to the men from the world’s most populated country, none of whom has broken into the top 100 in ATP ranking, Chinese women have won, on top of numerous WTA tour-level trophies, 2 singles titles (Li Na, ’11 Roland Garros & ’14 Australian Open), 6 women’s doubles titles (Zheng Jie & Yan Zi, ’06 Australian Open & Wimbledon; Peng Shuai, ’13 Wimbledon & ’14 Roland Garros; Zhang Shuai, ’19 Australian Open & ’21 U.S. Open), and 1 Mixed Doubles title (Sun Tiantian, ’08 Australian Open) at Grand Slam events. The takeoff of Chinese women’s tennis, however, was not linear; rather, it was Peng Shuai’s – and Li Na’s – “trouble-making” in 2005 that led to the loosening of the state’s complete control over tennis players and expedited these women’s historic ascent.

When Sun Tiantian and Li Ting surprisingly won the women’s doubles gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games and when Li Na won a Chinese players’ first ever WTA tour-level singles title, both in 2004, the managerial approach that the Chinese Tennis Association and the Chinese National Team employed with elite tennis players was hardly different from how the weightlifters or the archers were managed. The country’s best players competed in the professional circuit but were hardly professionals: they had little freedom in tournament selection, had to skip Grand Slam and other events to compete in the National Games, were required to turn in all prize money, and could not choose their own coaching staff. In all fairness, it was a much freer system than its 1980s rendition, which was centered on Asian Games performances (tennis was not reinstated in the Olympic Games until 1988) and famously led to the defection of Hu Na in 1983 (which triggered a drastic cooldown of arguably the first honeymoon period of the U.S.-P.R.C. relations); but it was outdated, unincentivizing, and failing the country’s talents.

In 2005, both Peng and Li (unless specified, Li hereafter stands for Li Na) spoke out—quite vehemently—about the limitations of said sport management model on their professional pursuits. That year, all China’s elite women were forced to skip Wimbledon to play for their provincial teams at the National Games, but both Peng (representing Tianjin) and Li (representing Hubei) lost to Zheng Jie (representing Sichuan) in different events. They yearned to “fly solo”—that is, to have sufficient autonomy over their career paths and to become a real professional player. However, what they faced was a Soviet-style system that had been operating with few changes over decades, one that emphasized preparing to fight for national glory at the Olympic Games, and crushed any attempt to break free (Yao Ming’s joining the Houston Rockets in 2002 both was and was not an exception). The clash between Peng (and Li) and the state sport officials led to a loaded quote from Sun Jinfang, then Director of the Tennis Management Center of General Administration of Sport of China and former captain of China’s Asian Games volleyball champion team: Does she (Peng) think she is (Maria) Sharapova?… I will let her fly solo as soon as she signs a pledge to win the gold medal (at the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games)! At the same time, like many other rising young talents, Peng did not have the mightiest mental power on court, as demonstrated by many upsets and comebacks against her, which along with Sun’s criticism and untimely injuries, tanked her 2006 season.

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Subscribe to The SportsThink Newsletter!

If you don’t already, I’d love it if you would consider reading and subscribing to the SportsThink Newsletter. While I’m sad to say that I haven’t the time to regularly update the blog, the newsletter goes out (almost) every week and features my favorite content from around the sports internet (and beyond!). I send two types of newsletters: the regular Weekly Read, which features the best thing I read each week about the wide world of sports. At the end of each month, you’ll get the Monthly Review, a longer format newsletter, featuring my favorite content from the previous month, occasional commentary, and other goodies. With any luck, I’ll get back to blogging regularly in the new year, but I hope that the newsletter sustains your SportsThinking for the time being. Thanks for reading!

Do reporters need to be in the locker room?

There’s some consternation over the NFL’s recent decision to keep journalists out of the locker room for a second straight year. Ostensibly a pandemic safety measure, critics argue that the move hurts objective coverage of the league and grants the league and teams greater control of media narratives via official channels. There is fear that this move will become permanent post-pandemic. But is this really a big deal?

On the one hand: yes, we should generally be concerned when journalistic access (to anything) is restricted in a democracy. On the other: what percentage of big-time sports coverage is truly independent, anyway? Do we really accept that journalists from media conglomerates who broadcast the league (and related) content are giving us the objective dirt? (And yes, not all journalists covering the league are paid by these outlets; fair is fair.) Even before the consolidation of media, the transparency of sports reporting has a dubious history. Go back to the days of Babe Ruth and you’ve got newspapermen embedded on the team Pullman car, cutting deals to ignore athletes’ bad behavior and indiscretions in exchange for access. Add to this a generation of sports fans raised in the direct access, social media era and I’m not buying that the average fan is losing much sleep over this decision.

Finally, let’s not ignore that it has always been a bit weird to have media in the locker room anyway. As if an athlete in a towel is somehow more candid than the same athlete in street clothes at a press conference an hour later. I’m all for transparency and access, but I’m unconvinced at this point that we’re losing anything of great importance here.

New Article Published on Innovation in 20th Century Fitness

Well, this was a long time coming. My article, “Critical Mass: Oral History, Innovation Theory, and the Fitness Legacy of the Muscle Beach Scene,” was just published by the International Journal of the History of Sport. This paper began its life as part of my dissertation, which was submitted in 2014. I’d wager the initial research began in 2011 or so, so this is a sporadic decade’s work. I think it’s pretty good. 50 free copies via this link, but email me if you miss out on one of those and need a copy.

Playing the Long Game Symposium: April 12-15

We’ve got a big event next week, folks! I have spent the last six months co-organizing Playing the Long Game with Jim Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rooney Consulting. Presented by Rooney Consulting, the Sport Management program at UT, and the HJ Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, Playing the Long Game is dedicated to meaningful conversations on the future of the sports industry.

We’ve got an absolutely killer lineup, starting with a keynote address on April 12th featuring former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, one of the most influential figures in the history of American sports. We’ll then move on to four panel discussions, two each on April 13th and 15th. Topics include sports after COVID, innovation and the long term future of the industry, diversity, and culture and ethics in the workplace. Some panelists of note:

  • Swin Cash-Canal, former NCAA,WNBA, and Olympic champion, current VP of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Paxton K. Baker, minority owner of the Washington Nationals and a long-time business leader in media and entertainment
  • Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President for Communications, Public Affairs, and Policy
  • Larry Miller, Chairman of the Jordan Brand Advisory Board (Nike), former President of Jordan Brand, former President of the Portland Trailblazers
  • Sam Rapoport, NFL Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion
  • And many, many more thought leaders from across the sports industry and academia. Click here for a full list of panelists and their bios.

Head to our website to register for the event, it’s free and open to the public, via Zoom. Our vision is to make this annual event, one that will be live and in-person in Austin starting next year. While focused on the pressing issues that face students entering the sports industry in uncertain times, I trust that anyone interested in the business and future of sports will come away with much to think about. Finally, we plan to “play the long game” beyond the big event, building a community rooted in our vision of long term success and meaningful impact, in sports and beyond. Conference registrants will receive a monthly newsletter, featuring the latest from our panelists and hosts, unique content, networking opportunities and more.

I hope you’ll join us in Playing Long!

Sport and Geopolitics Roundup

Some recent items of note.

  1. North Korea is out of the Olympics. As the article notes, there’s a twofold explanation: covid-exposure fears and a rebuke of the opportunity for diplomatic conversations, sending a message to both Seoul and DC. This is decidedly a step backwards after the seeming progress at the previous winter games and in-line with the state’s recent weapons tests.

  2. The US is mulling a 2022 Olympic Boycott. Here’s my in-depth analysis: not happening.

  3. After a year-long delay due to the pandemic, the NBA’s Basketball Africa League will launch next month. This is a big and logical step for the league, a way to extend the global brand and step up talent development efforts on the continent. Given the lingering friction with China over the Daryl Morey-Hong Kong “scandal”, I expect more of these diverse global efforts from the league. Update 4/9/21: Xinjiang cotton production may be at the center of the next China-NBA rift.

  4. Xi Jinping has his sights set on soccer. Despite several attempts over the years, China has never really ascended on the global soccer stage. With a strong foothold in Olympic sports, gaining relevance in world soccer is an obvious step for China, but of course it’s easier said than done. But things can change if the Chinese government follows to through on the vision to throw big money and big efforts into the sport. Competitive success is complicated, but hosting a World Cup and taking a bigger role in FIFA seem inevitable.

We Can Dance If We Want To

A note from the editor: I’m tremendously excited to share this guest post by Scott Jedlicka, a dear friend and sport management professor at Washington State University. I find it challenging and thought-provoking in all the right ways. And it’s timely, coming not just when most of us surely thought the pandemic would be a memory, but also on the eve of the Final Four, when most of us will be engaging in just the sort of sports consumption (and, for some, the internal conflict) that Scott expounds on here. I hope you’ll read it, maybe a couple times, and let us know what you think. This is exactly the sort of work I had hoped to share when I started this site a year ago and I’m so thankful to Scott for the time, thought, and effort he put into this work. Finally, a special thank you to Andrew Hao, Alec Hurley, and George Kioussis for their insightful and prompt comments and suggestions on Scott’s early draft.–Tolga

In the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic, George Packer’s bluntly titled “We Are Living in a Failed State” recounts the United States’ woefully inept response to COVID-19. While much of Packer’s withering criticism is leveled specifically at the Trump administration and its utter inability (or refusal) to deal with the unfolding crisis, he also artfully captures the social, cultural, and economic environment that exacerbated these failures of leadership:

This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.

All of this is accurate and not very optimistic, of course, but the final clause is what really gives Packer’s description a dire tone: “no vision of a shared identity or future.” Packer is describing an empire on its last legs, a riven populace bereft of solidarity and unable to imagine a departure from the status quo. He is describing a culture in decline.

Insofar as it is an indicator of “normal” life, sport plays a revealing role in this denouement. The approaching end of the pandemic is unlikely to reverse the trajectory on which America finds itself. At the same time, the resumption of major sporting events, the familiar cycle of ritualized celebrations reliably marking the passage of time, will no doubt be heralded by many as a positive and welcome development. The critics and reformers will continue to stridently draw attention to sport’s shortcomings, of course, but—as was the case before the pandemic—the lion’s share of this criticism will either be filtered through various identity-based lenses or reduce sport to just another battlefront in the war of labor against capital. While these approaches are not without value, they tend to share the same contradictory and self-defeating endpoint.

For those concerned with issues of social equity, sport’s value lies primarily in its status as a visible platform for raising awareness. Consequently, sport is considered to be a distinct realm of public life only to the extent that it engages an audience that might otherwise reject considerations (or be wholly ignorant) of social justice. When professional or college athletes engage in various forms of protest, or when injustices occur in sport itself, it is meaningful precisely because it demands the attention of those who would prefer to look away. In this view, the dialogues, conversations, et al. that are ostensibly initiated or advanced through athletes refusing to “shut up and dribble” will necessarily lead in the direction of broader social critique: of the factors underpinning racism, misogyny, state violence, exploitation and abuse, and so on. It is at this point, unfortunately, that this critical approach to sport tends to go off the rails. Those whose politics position them in opposition to the causes championed by athletes will inevitably conclude that sport is being “politicized,” the response to which is typically to point out that sport—as a social practice—is an unavoidably politicized activity. This is a largely irreconcilable stalemate, as the two competing claims are generated from dissimilar premises; the “keep politics out of sport” crowd believes (however disingenuously) that there is something about sport that makes it essentially different from other spheres of social life, while its opponents decidedly do not.

Unfortunately, by denying that sport is anything other than a mirror of society, even those sympathetic to the causes associated with “politicized” sport reach a similar impasse. If one acknowledges the existence of intractable problems that are manifested in sport and in society (the latter of which, again, are often emphasized in sport through athlete activism), they are faced with two general paths to resolution. The first, common to many reform efforts in sport, is the “bad apples” diagnosis: that the problems of sport and society can be largely attributed to the negligent or malfeasant behavior of individuals. At the end of this path lies an easily implemented but rarely effective set of solutions that typically involves some combination of education, awareness-raising, and selecting the “right” leaders. The second path points in the direction of structural change, but the solutions on offer here are less obvious and (for most) emphatically less palatable. Those who pursue this line of critique must, at some point, confront the reality that if sport is a socially constructed activity (political in the way that all realms of social life are political), and if the causes of the problems with which they are concerned are rooted in the structures of society itself, then true reform will necessarily require fundamental changes to sport. In other words, the conditions that make sport a useful arena for social advocacy are also very likely the conditions that create the issues that require advocacy in the first place. Many who champion sport’s utility as a platform for awareness raising are less enthusiastic about setting fire to the stage.

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One More Women’s NCAA Observation: Learning from Rosters

A not-too-scientific, but potentially interesting addendum to Tuesday’s NCAA post.

When I watch college sports, I like to pull up the team rosters to see where everyone hails from, learn interesting trivia, etc. As I’ve been doing this during the basketball tournaments, I started noticing some things on women’s rosters that I think are positive indicators of the overall growth and investment in women’s sports:

  1. Rosters are less local. Historically, colleges tended to recruit from their local base. Football and basketball powerhouses were the exception, but even they relied heavily on in-state talent. Women’s teams also tended to be overwhelmingly local. Not the case anymore: these teams are built from all across the country and, in another positive sign, across the world.
  2. Transfers, transfers everywhere, as far as the eye can see. This trend has been accelerated by the rule-changes allowing graduate transfers immediate eligibility, but also to a lesser extent by greater case-by-case flexibility on undergrad transfer eligibility.

I’ve noticed this across many of the rosters I pulled up as I watched games, but Arizona’s Final Four squad serves as a good example. Of the 14 players on the team, eight are Americans, but only one hails from Arizona. The six internationals come from Canada, Spain (x2), Australia, Latvia, and Turkey (woot woot!). Four are transfers.

So what does this all mean? Again, this isn’t a particularly rigorous analysis, but I think the diversity here says much about the increasing seriousness of women’s sports, both in the US and abroad. To develop this level of talent requires investment, as does recruiting on the national and global scale. To be sure, the internet has made scouring the globe that much easier, but you still need dedicated staff to conduct research and get players on board. Interpreting the transfer tend is a bit hazier, but again, it takes resources to pull off and that players are keen to continue their careers suggests that they find value in the opportunity to keep playing with the potential of WNBA or foreign professional prospects.

I may be overthinking this, but I think there’s something here.

Some Thoughts and Reading on Women’s NCAA Sports

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s sports in the past few weeks. No real surprise here: we’re discussing the topic in one of my classes this week and the NCAA women’s basketball tournament has been flat-out fantastic. Tournament time inevitably focuses our attention on the good and the bad of college sports: see the annual referendum on athlete compensation as we watch unpaid “amateurs” compete for hours in between endless advertisements. This year, the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments got much needed attention, in no small part due to the social media efforts of Sedona Prince. Here she is lampooning the ridiculous women’s “weight room” and here she is chronicling the “food” situation. (and here’s an excellent piece on her journey, hard not to root for her.)

I have thoughts and things to share:

  • For more on the NCAA’s embarrassing showing, I really like Sally Jenkins, who pulls exactly 0 punches. This one is great, as is this one. I particularly like her opening in the second one: The NCAA’s handling of the women’s basketball tournament is either malpractice or malfeasance. When it comes to the NCAA, why not both?
  • A related conversation that’s been thrust into the spotlight: the women’s tournament cannot use the marketing term “March Madness.” Only men can make madness, apparently. I generally understand arguments surrounding things like “brand dilution,” but come on. Here’s a decent piece on this absurdity.
  • In a related bit of indignity, one of the dumbest arguments against paying college athletes is that doing so will somehow “hurt” female athletes. As you can see from the above, the NCAA is of course very concerned with taking care of the women. But then there’s this graphic from Axios, with data from Openendorse:

  • So what do we have here? Projected earnings potential for athletes still in the tournament, if they were able to monetize their Name-Image-Likeness. Couple things: yes, the remaining men’s teams are star-light and yes, converting follower counts to estimated earnings is a shaky metric at best. But you know what I don’t see here? Harm to female athletes. Let ’em get paid!
  • And finally, there’s the classic bit about all of the above being justified because “people just don’t watch women’s sports.” This is not totally off-base, but is incomplete. I’ll be back later this week with more on this, but for now, I’ll leave these here (via Zoomph and ESPN):


Contextualizing the National Anthem Conversation

The most unexpected headline this week was the news that the Dallas Mavericks hadn’t been playing the national anthem before their home games. Of course, as soon as this made the news, things changed course and the anthem is back. Apparently, the NBA had softened the rule at the start of this season, but has now doubled back and clarified the expectation that all teams will play it before games. Some assorted thoughts on this:

While the US isn’t the ONLY country that plays the anthem before all professional and collegiate (and many high school) games, we’re in a pretty small minority. How did we get here? The tradition–as an occasional performance–dates back to the Civil War, but the current norm is decidedly more recent. I’ll defer to my UT colleague Michael Butterworth, who summarizes nicely in a pair of tweets:

So there’s that. I asked my small corner of Twitter if there were any examples of US teams similarly avoiding the anthem, as the Mavericks recently did. I didn’t get much, but historian Zach Bigalke pointed out that the Philadelphia Flyers abandoned the anthem amidst tensions during the Vietnam War, when many fans would leave their seats in a bit of protest. They replaced the song with God Bless America, won a Stanley Cup, and birthed a tradition. These days, it looks like the Flyers do play the anthem.

But for the most part, it appears to be standard fare, with a 70+ year history. The timing of the anthem hasn’t always been consistent: many NFL observers pointed out that, for many years, the anthem was played before the athletes took the field. Obviously, this changed before Colin Kaepernick’s now famous demonstration. Also on Twitter, historian Andrew McGregor noted that many Big 10 football teams would also play the song before players took the field, sometimes to the chagrin of visiting opponents.

So why might Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have signed off on this? Say what you will about Cuban, but he’s no dummy when it comes to business. My take was that it was somewhat calculated: fans offended by the absence of the song have likely already tuned out of the NBA and its increasingly visible social justice efforts. Thus, the Mavs decision might be taken as show of solidarity with their athletes and/or an alignment with fans who support the league’s progressive platforms.

And what does it all mean? Big picture…honestly, not a whole lot. But it’s another reminder that sports and politics are inextricably connected, as they have always been.