How the Disappearance of Tennis Player Peng Shuai Exposes the Broken Culture Around Abuse in Sports

The other night I went out to a restaurant with a bunch of my friends and classmates in my Sport Media program to celebrate the end of the semester. A couple of hours in, we started talking about sports, because hey, we’re sports fanatics! One guy starts talking about how much he loves Derrick Rose, the “best guy to win MVP” and how heartbroken he was from his injury. When he asked for my opinion on Rose, I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I don’t care about his basketball career, he’s a rapist.” I’ll never forget the shock on his face. He didn’t know about Rose’s gang rape case. This got me thinking. How many people have no idea about this because it got swept under the rug in the sports world?

In case you want to read the court details of this case, they are explicitly detailed here. But let’s take a look at the bigger issue here, and the most recent news cycle involving tennis player Peng Shuai has revealed something frightening. If you haven’t been following along, this is the timeline of events:

November 2, 2021 – WTA player Peng Shuai accuses former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex

In a since-deleted social media post, the 35-year-old tennis player accused the former VP of the Communist Party in China of forcing her to have sex with him after inviting Peng Shuai to play tennis with him about three years ago. There was also a “relationship” of this sort that spanned over 10 years.

November 3-20, 2021 – Peng Shuai disappears from the public eye

After her post got deleted and the entire story was scrubbed and censored, her whereabouts were unknown to the public. There were many attempts to try and reach Peng Shuai, but the WTA and other outlets could not reach her directly.

November 21, 2021 – A video of Peng Shuai surfaces and the IOC says that she is ‘ok’

After appearing at a restaurant and in a “30-minute Zoom call” with the IOC, a statement was put out saying that she was okay. However, this wasn’t enough. The WTA was not satisfied and there was fear that she was being forced to pretend that she was safe. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai had been trending on social media platforms like Twitter throughout this time and many athletes and media were speaking on it.

December 2, 2021 – WTA suspends all its tournaments in China, including Hong Kong

The chairman and CEO of the WTA, Steve Simon, released a statement saying that it isn’t fair for their athletes to continue to play here while this situation is continuing. Included in the statement is this powerful quote:

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Steve Simon, Chairman and CEO of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association)

Let’s unpack this. The suppression of the voices of women and sweeping allegations of sexual assault under the rug by powerful people is a common theme across all sports. In football, quarterback Deshaun Watson had 22 women file a lawsuit against him for sexual assault and harassment this last summer. What are the headlines surrounding Watson this week? Trade rumours.

What about basketball? Currently, there are two NBA head coaches with a -let’s say violent- past who were brought to their respective teams just this season. On top of that, there are several players in the same situation (Terence Davis of the Sacramento Kings comes to mind). Not enough? Circling back to tennis, Alex Zvereve of the ATP has been at the center of abuse allegations for the last year. Since the ATP does not have a domestic abuse policy, the only pressure on the story was through the media.

Right now, the media has been the key in telling these stories. The truth is, allegations and court cases constantly get swept under the rug. Sadly, women aren’t the only survivors. Kyle Beach is just one of the devastating examples of just how broken sports “culture” is. The people in positions of power have created a “brotherhood” system and culture that will only continue to silence the voices that speak out.

I don’t fully know what the answer is. What I do know is that whatever is in place right now needs to be deconstructed and reimagined. It can be difficult to talk about it, but it needs to be done because survivors have to deal with seeing their abuser being glorified and even supported in the public eye. When it gets to the point where someone like Peng Shuai disappears for an entire month, we can’t just let the news cycle continue on like nothing happened.

It’s time to break the cycle.

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