We haven’t forgotten about Peng Shuai and Brittney Griner

At the intersection of sports and politics

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photo of a sign at a protest asking for change.
PHOTO: Markus Spiske / Pexels

By: C Icart, Staff Writer

Content warning: mentions of racism and sexual assault 

Fifty years after Title IX, a groundbreaking law in the US that “banned sex discrimination in federally funded education programs,” the growth of women’s sports is undeniable. Title IX increased the amount of women competing in sports at the high school and collegiate levels. Since then, women’s sports have “​​higher ratings, greater attendance, more sponsors, increased prize winnings, and greater media coverage” than ever before.

While there is much to celebrate, there is still inequality on and off the court. Sports may be entertainment, but it can’t be separated from politics. Athletes regularly use their visibility to make political statements. Over 40 years before Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the American national anthem, African American cheerleaders from Brown University caused a stir by staying seated during the national anthem. They followed in the footsteps of athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos in speaking up about anti-Black racism and violence in the US.

The Olympics, historically and even today, highlights relationships between different nations. During the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, African American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals. At the time, American journalists described this “as a blow to the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy.” Ironically, Black athletes still experienced discrimination once they returned to the US. This year, countries like the US, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia citedatrocities against the Uyghur Muslim population in the northwest province of Xinjiang” as the reason for not sending top officials to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. However, this boycott was only diplomatic, and all of these states did send athletes to compete in China. 

In November 2021, Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player, was censored online and disappeared after accusing a former senior politician of sexually assaulting her. Any conversation about her and the man she accused was heavily censored in China. Shortly after the post was made and taken down, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong, and a statement was released: “We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently, and without censorship.” Yet, this did not happen, and the WTA is still returning to China. 

Since then, Shuai has made minimal public appearances and has denied that she had ever made allegations of sexual assault. There are still concerns that she can’t speak freely. This is partly because, almost a year later, she still hasn’t directly posted on her own social media. 

While news surrounding Shuai and the allegations have gone cold online, Brittney Griner made headlines this week. US Embassy officials visited the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star in Russia, where she is being detained. Griner was sentenced to over nine years after vape cartridges were found in her luggage. As cannabis is illegal in Russia, the athlete pleaded guilty to smuggling “less than one gram of cannabis oil” into the country. This happened as Griner was going to play for the Russian Premier League, which many WNBA players do during the off season for additional money. WNBA players make significantly less than NBA players and can make one million dollars a year in Russia, compared to less than a quarter of a million in the US. 

In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Griner is viewed as a political prisoner. That view is substantiated as Bidenoffered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence” for the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, who is detained for espionage charges. 

When these women were at the top of their respective sports, all eyes were on them. Shuai spent 20 weeks at no. 1 in doubles, while Griner is a two-time Olympic champion. We can’t turn away now that they are no longer on our screens. Athletes regularly willingly make political statements; however, when they are used by governments for political purposes, it’s important to recognize the difference and speak up, especially when athletes can’t. 

You can join the #WeAreBG campaign, by signing petitions and writing notes for Griner.