As I record this, our American friends are watching Thanksgiving football. Okay, fine. So am I. Who are we kidding? If you don’t normally care about sports, this actually is an episode for you. If you do normally like sports, this is a conversation you need to hear. For a few years now, athletes have been speaking out publicly more than ever about social issues, about racial injustice and privilege and other causes dear to their hearts. But until now, not really about China.
Peng Shuai News Clips
…the tennis world has rallied behind Peng, a former world number one doubles champion. The Women’s Tennis Association wants a full investigation…
…this cannot be swept under the rug. It can’t be condoned…
On the surface, you might think that the resistance to China hiding Peng Shuai is a sign the tide is finally turning, that sports is becoming more responsible, rising to the challenge of a modern, complicated world. Willing to shift its culture to adapt. I wish that were true. It is over the next few years that we’ll determine whether or not the culture is evolving. Right now, though, what’s happening is that the skeletons in every sports closet are being hauled out for the world to see whether that is a willingness to ignore human rights issues, to capture Chinese millions, or a willingness to ignore sexual abuse to win a cup.
Kyle Beach News Clip
…during the Hawks Stanley Cup season in 2010, beach told team officials video coordinator Brad Aldridge had sexually assaulted him. The report found the team waited three weeks to investigate…
Or a willingness to ignore racism and sexism to land a coach.
Jon Gruden News Clip
…NFL coach and former Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden announcing his exit as head coach after emails uncovered revealed a torrent of sexist, racist, anti-gay language…
Or a willingness to endanger people’s health to satisfy a star.
Aaron Rodgers News Clip
…Rodgers made the league’s case for them, saying the packers knew he wasn’t vaccinated while breaking NFL policy…
Aaron Rodgers Clip
…everyone on the squad knew I was not vaccinated. Everyone in the organization knew I wasn’t vaccinated…
The question here, is what comes next? We are about to find out if sunlight really is the best disinfectant or if the world of sports is too disconnected from reality, too insulated by millions and billions in revenue, to ever play by the rules the rest of society tries to follow. And since the Olympics start in 70 days in China, the clock is ticking.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is the Big Story. Donnovan Bennett is a senior writer, a host, and an inclusive content lead at Sportsnet, one of our favorite people to talk to whenever the world of sports meets real life. Hey, Donovan.
Hey, Jordan. Yeah, it is an appraisal on, ‘did something really, really bad happen?’ Because generally we’re talking about recapping the year in sports or talking about an atrocity in the year in sports. And so we’re just killing two birds with one stone with this conversation.
Yeah, it’s been kind of a steady drumbeat over the past few months of sports reckoning with their dirtier, they’re Uglier sides. And maybe you could start with the most recent reason that we’re having this conversation. Everybody saw some pictures this weekend of a tennis player, Peng Shuai enjoying a meal. Why were those pictures important?
Yeah, and even you said the most recent, literally, as I sit down with you to record this I’m seeing streams of a really scary scene potentially with Everson Griffen, a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, it seems like a mental health cry for help. So hopefully, as that story progresses, there isn’t another addition to the sad stories that we’ve had in sports.
But those scenes in those photos and videos that we saw coming out of China verifying her whereabouts, is scary for us specifically in North America, because that is so foreign to us. Literally, this is happening in a foreign country. But for those who don’t know, she’s one of the most famous Chinese tennis players who has won Wimbledon and the French Open in doubles in the past. She sent out a message on Weibo, which is their version in China of Facebook or Twitter, about a sexual assault allegation that she claims happened to her by a former Chinese Vice Premier.
That post was deleted immediately, disappeared, and for a couple of weeks, so did she. And it wasn’t until other tennis players and eventually the WTA said, well, wait a minute, where is she? Why have we not heard from her? Why has she and her post—although people captured it immediately—been scrubbed from the internet? If you searched her or her allegations online in China, you wouldn’t see anything. The only things you would see were her tennis results from five or six years ago. So some people were really concerned about the fact that they did not know where she was or hadn’t heard from her.
So, slowly what we got from Chinese delegates via Chinese state media was a sprinkling of there’s nothing to see here. First, it was an email that seemed pretty precarious, allegedly coming from her saying that she was fine and that she was just resting at home and that the allegations that she made were not true.
It read like a hostage letter.
100%. And also did not reference the specific allegations. Then we saw a trickle over the weekend of photos of her and video of her. A photo of her smiling around stuffed dolls and animals, oddly. And no one really knew when those were taken. And then we saw her signing tennis balls at a youth tournament and out to dinner or some meal with some gentleman, with her not speaking, but there. And so the reference is, ‘well she’s alive’, which is great, but we still don’t know if she has freedom of movement, freedom of speech, because we haven’t heard her speak to a live TV. The IOC has said that they have been in contact with her and Thomas Bach, their leader, has spoken to her and that she was well. However, we haven’t seen that.
And also the IOC has a dog in the fight, given that the Olympics just around the corner in February are in China, and people certainly want them to happen if you are related to the IOC. So sadly, it’s something that is not foreign to celebrities, actors, real estate moguls, athletes in China, who have spoken out in the past and who have had those posts gone missing and people worried about their whereabouts. But for us in a North American context, specifically around sports, it was pretty jarring and no one really knew about it until Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic started to talk about it, and the WTA started to really try and advocate for two things: verifiable evidence that she is okay, and they still haven’t been able to contact her personally, and also an independent investigation into her original allegations. And that is something that hasn’t been referenced or broached. And something, given the history of China, that is somewhat unlikely.
We’ll talk about the Olympics in a second, but the outcry that you mentioned from female tennis players also, I believe on the men’s side, Novak Jokovic spoke up, and the WTA was pretty vocal. How unusual is that? I know sort of in passing that China is a hot topic for pretty much every athlete and sports League. And there’s been a lot of criticism about those figures being reluctant to speak out on these issues, on humans rights issues for fear that it will cost them essentially millions and billions of dollars in Chinese revenue.
Well, just ask the NBA, Daryl Morey, although not Chinese, but posted on social media about Hong Kong and the ripple effect and implications were NBA games being taken off of television in China. The Rockets, who he was the GM for at the time, who has been for a long time the team of China because Yao Ming played for them. Their games and mentions of them were taken off of the internet, and that literally had an impact on the bottom line for the NBA, it had an impact on what the next collective bargaining agreement would look like and what the salary cap would be because of so much lost revenue to China.
And the WTA has, in some cases a very similar situation, which makes the fact that Steve Simon has been so vocal, the leader of the WTA, all that more impressive. Because they have signed a deal for the next ten years of their WTA Championship to be held in China. The prize money has doubled because of it, and it is estimated that billions of dollars into the sport would be invested in China over the next couple of years. New resources in terms of a stadium was built to house more and more tournaments in China in the future.
Certainly there’s a financial aspect and that ripples not just into sport in terms of tennis, but sport more broadly. Enes Kanter, who has been outspoken, he’s a basketball player for the Boston Celtics. He and his own family were threatened when he was outspoken in terms of what was happening in his home country of Turkey. It’s divided his family and some of his family has been put in compromising positions because of it. He’s virtually lost his Turkish passport because of it. He went on CNN and critiqued Michael Jordan for not speaking out on this issue and critique Michael Jordan for many things, one of which was not speaking out on issues in the black community. But he has posted on Twitter and spoken out loudly towards LeBron James about the fact that he hasn’t spoken out about this issue specifically and about China more broadly, given that LeBron James makes so much money via Nike and via his tours every summer in China.
So it is something that has not just been a sports conversation in tennis. Quite frankly, it’s not just been a sports conversation. Joe Biden has been asked about this and what this might mean in terms of delegates going to the Olympics. And it has, like all things, been a political football. Ted Cruz, of all people, has applauded the WTA. Now, whether he’s a good faith actor in supporting the WTA or whether he’s just trying to stir the pot, I’ll let you decide. But it has been a point of conversation, considering that this is not an athlete that was a household name in North America a month ago.
Well, and it all seems to be coming to a head now on this particular issue and maybe on some other issues in sport that we’ll get into. But as you mentioned, especially talking about billions, the Winter Olympics are a couple of months away. There had been talk in the past about why the IOC was giving these games to China, considering their history of human rights abuses. Now that talk is getting louder. I know we’ve talked about the Olympics before. I’ve talked to your colleague Stephen Brunt before, and it always has seemed to come back to, well, the IOC is going to side with where the money is. Is that still happening? What do you see taking place over the next couple of months?
It’s a great question, because you have two side by side issues in terms of facing these Olympics, and whether or not it makes sense to go. The human rights issue that we have referenced, this is yet another one, but certainly what has gone on in Hong Kong, and the conversation about the Uyghurs in China is one. And then it’s got this thing that doesn’t want to go away called COVID, and how safe it will be, to what lengths the Chinese government will go to to make sure that everyone is safe. And will they maybe paper over some real health and safety issues because they are so bullish that these games should happen.
And so with those two things happening in real time, in concert at the same time, it’s a real question of whether or not countries should go, whether or not there should be an athletic or diplomatic boycott of these games. And as soon as you thought some of that talk would quiet down, this issue rears it’s certainly ugly head, and you have the propaganda of the Sunday night video call between Peng and the IOC President Thomas Bach.
And you just can’t really divorce yourself from the fact that the IOC just came out of moving heaven and Earth to have games in Japan when the country was in a state of emergency. And certainly they’re going to do everything to keep the conversation on the athletes and the games and keep this as apolitical as possible. But it’s tough to do that when an athlete has gone missing because they accused the former Vice Premier of coercing them into sex. That’s kind of tough just to look past. So we know what the stance of the Chinese authorities will be. They haven’t acknowledged any of these allegations. Anyone who’s spoken out about the human rights issues more broadly has been essentially eliminated from social media and the internet in the country. So they’re trying to sterilize the conversation in the country.
But as we get closer, presidents and prime ministers in North America are going to be asked the question, as athletes start to become part of the conversation, the next thing is, who has the real money when it comes to power? The fear is that the money that China has will sway opinions. But I think we all as consumers have power of our dollar. And there historically has been a reluctance of not just sports leagues, let’s be honest, tech companies to say anything bad about China because of what that means financially.
I don’t want to be holier than thou. I’m talking to you on this beautiful day in Canada on devices that were made in China. So I certainly understand that I’m a part of how the sausage gets made. But I think if there was pressure more broadly with more conversation like this, that cascades to the brands, thus to the athletes, and maybe we’ll see some boycotts in China. But quite frankly, when you look at historically why there have been boycotts at Olympic games, and you measure that up with some of the things that are going on right now, certainly this reaches the bar that something should be done.
I’m glad you said that about kind of being part of the problem, because that’s something I think about a lot when it comes to sports. And tell me a little bit just about what the last few months have been like in terms of covering sports. And has there been any League that’s been untouched by the kind of abuse, power issues that seem to be emerging in locker rooms and in executive suites across sports while we just sit back and watch the games?
It’s a great question. Oddly enough, it’s not the first time today I was asked that question. I was talking to high school here in the Toronto area, and there’s a question and answer period afterwards. The talk was about anti bullying as it’s anti bullying week in many schools. And the question was about the frequency of harassment and bullying and toxic workplace stories these kids have seen coming out of sports and whether or not I still feel good about working in sports. And it was a fair question, even though I didn’t expect to get it from a teenager. But quite frankly, there has been a stretch recently where every time I opened up my phone and went to Twitter, something else happened in sports that was outright depressing, if not deplorable. And no league has been immune.
The NFL has many issues, but there’s a toxic workplace environment issue with the Washington football team, whose name is a placeholder because their previous name was racist. That investigation was not made public, although it should have been. But what was made public was that another coach for another team, Jon Gruden, the former coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, was inappropriate almost equally towards every single equity deserving group, whether it was race or gender or sexuality. He had no issue about saying something that was problematic. And for the money ball, also just sharing lewd photos of women, on top of denying the real issues that the sport has in terms of concussions.
Moving along, nothing to see here in the NFL. Well, Aaron Rogers says, hold my beer. I’m going to lie of omission about if I’m vaccinated, put other people in harm’s way, decide which vaccine protocols I think are worthy of following. Only to then, once I get COVID, use a platform to say that a lot of the real research that the CDC has done around COVID is false, because my research is better. And here’s why I’m afraid to take a vaccine.
If we want to move to hockey. There was a sexual harassment scandal in hockey that was covered up for a decade because at the time, the Chicago Black Hawks felt that winning a Stanley Cup was more important than protecting their player Kyle Beach from their video coach harassing him. And how do they think they should handle that? Well, maybe just find a way for the video coach to have a day with the Stanley Cup, put his name on the Stanley Cup and not tell anybody about the issues only so that he would go on and work in hockey to then rape a minor at another organization. And when asked about it, Gary Bettman, the Commissioner, said, yeah, we wish we did better, but we’ll cover the legal expenses for Kyle Beach, but not the other child who we put in harm because of our indifference. And in terms of a harassment and sexual assault policy as a League, yeah, we don’t really have one. We’re kind of making it up as we go.
There’s been so many from sport to sport to sport. It’s almost as if different sports are taking turns on how they want to embarrass themselves when clearly there should be a playbook on, I don’t know, being less harmful and more helpful on these issues.
The one thing I did say to that young student who asked me the super sobering question is, I do believe that sports has a real power and a force multiplier to bring people together in a way that almost nothing else can. But I also do think I’m a bit of a dreamer, and maybe I’m over selling that to tell myself that. But I do certainly know that sports can be this beautiful sunlight and a disinfectant on some of our ills. And because people care about these teams care about these leagues so much, we can have some broader conversations about things that are systemic in our culture and not just unique in sports. They happen all across different genres. And maybe because people care about sports so much as a distraction, we can use that to have some conversations that should be had and shouldn’t be a distraction because we should be much better on them in the year 2021, soon to be 2022.
This is the last aspect that I want to talk about is whether or not that culture is really changing and whether or not, as you just put it, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I want to ask you specifically, because a couple of years ago, when there was a horrific incident at a local school in Toronto, you and I talked about locker room culture and what kind of stuff goes on there. And you had some great insight from your time playing the game at a high level before you got into the media. And when you hear about something like the way Kyle Beach described being treated not only by the people in charge of the Blackhawks but also saying, in effect, like everybody in the locker room knew it and they were making jokes. And how much did that surprise you to hear that that’s what was going on ten years ago, and given that you’re talking to a lot of athletes now, do you think that’s still the case? Has it come any distance from what that was?
Great question. So no, wasn’t surprised. And sadly, I think to a certain extent it’s still the case. The independent investigators at the Black Hawks chose to look into the situation, Jenner & Block, interviewed 139 people, which is incredibly thorough, but also is instructive that a lot of people knew something. This is the loudest secret that many people knew of, specifically in the case of Kyle Beach, but more broadly knew that things like this happen. And for people to still feel in 2021 when the report came out, well, it doesn’t make sense given his age at the time he was 20 and his physical prime, his weight and all those pieces of information were in the report, which somewhat doxed him. People thought, how should he have found himself in a scenario? I’m not sure if I can believe this.
What they don’t really understand is what was true then, and it’s still true now, is the power dynamics in sports. And I think the through line between all of the stories that I told you about Peng Shuai to Kyle Beach, to everything in between, is how much the power dynamics really put people in compromising positions, and often times that power is based off of money and the lust for money. And that’s something that hasn’t changed. Sports and the money just continues to get bigger and bigger.
I think before we’re worried about the awareness piece, we need to reconcile how we can stop these things from happening again. It’s one thing for people to understand that it’s happening and recognize that it’s wrong. But we need to get to the point where we are talking about safe sport and being Proactive about changing the culture. And like anything, quite frankly, I think that’s going to happen when we incentivize it. When we show, and there’s studies to show this, that locker rooms and organizations actually win more when they’re inclusive, win more when they’re safe, win more when there isn’t bullying and harassing. But we’re far from it thus far. But maybe when we have this conversation at this time next year, we’ll be able to show some examples of positive movement in the right direction.
One of the things that I saw in the aftermath of the Kyle Beach report is a lot of people talking about like, look, if that many people knew that something was going on in an organization, there is no way that the day to day beat reporters covering the team had not heard something, had not had an inkling that this was kind of a running joke in the locker room or that this had happened and they didn’t want to report it because of power dynamics. As you mentioned, losing access to a team and its players is death in that part of the industry.
Yes. No question. I think that’s the biggest struggle in terms of figuring out how you solve this is that certainly with great power comes great responsibility. And as journalists, we take a bit of a journalistic oath. But sports is set up like news, but it’s somewhat different. We have this tangled web in terms of rights holders and partners. And so is it easy to tell a very honest story about an individual athlete when an athlete is brokering deals and sub licensing his content with leagues, with broadcasters, with social media platforms?
With people in China.
With people in China, yes. And so that’s where, unlike sometimes when you’re talking to reporters that are in the news space, there’s a very clear line of what people can and can’t do. There’s a reason why reporters can’t talk about specific brands on social media. They can’t be paid to say certain things. They can’t get too close to certain politicians in sports. There’s a reason why the e in ESPN stands for entertainment, because although we are doing a lot of work that if you squint, it looks like news, we’re also doing a lot of work that if you squint, it looks a bit closer to reality TV. It is a bit of escape.
And so it’s quite honestly a constant conversation, that is twofold. One, how do we set up our organizations to put people in positions to succeed and to be not part of the problem and not complicit to the bad actors and the lack of accountability towards these leagues so that those power dynamics can indicate what happens and how it’s spoken about. But two, how can we be mindful to not be more harmful when we cover these stories? What sort of training do we need to start to have that never happened in terms of the language that we use. What stories are exploitive and what stories help? In what ways can we get into some of these really tricky issues through the lens of sport? And in what ways is it too far? And maybe our news friends would be better off providing the coverage.
These are conversations that are happening in real time, and I would just say it’s more of a journey and less of a destination. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but I know certainly we’re far from the place that we need to be. And the media, full stop, has a big part to play. But with the explosion of blogs and social media, who exactly the media is and what our journalistic oath looks like is constantly changing as well.
So I think both in the collective theoretical locker room that we all have as media members and the real locker room in and around arenas for athletes, there are individuals that are starting to think strategically and collectively about making sure that we hold people accountable. But we still have many areas and scenarios where we’re seeing… ten years has passed in terms of the Kyle Beach scenario, But in many ways, not much has changed.
Maybe this time next year we’ll go from Baby Steps to Toddler Steps and take it from there.
Thank you so much for this, Donnovan, as always.
Cheers, anytime. Thanks for having the conversation.
Donnovan Bennett, as always, of Sportsnet.
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