As first appeared in Boxscore
By Aron Solomon
Let’s summarize before we dive into details:
And, now, because WTA leadership is so remarkably uncreative and ineffectual, they are going to embrace not only China, but Saudi sportwashing, in an effort to infuse desperately-needed cash into the organization that runs women’s professional tennis.
This is ridiculous and entirely unconscionable.
There is one viable option here: The WTA players can simply refuse to play in Saudi Arabia. They can just say now and essentially go on strike unless the WTA Finals are played in an acceptable location.
It wouldn’t be the first time professional athletes decided to strike. Professional athletes have demonstrated their ability to leverage their influence by going on strike to demand fair treatment, better working conditions, and (as would be the case here in fighting against Saudi sportwashing) social justice
As Florida lawyer John Lawlor points out, “These strikes have not only reshaped the landscape of sports but also highlighted the power of collective action and athletes’ commitment to creating a more just society.”
Here are some of the most noteworthy strikes in sports history – ample useful examples here for the top WTA players to emulate in making a stand against Saudi:
The 1965 AFL All-Star Game Strike:
In an era marked by racial segregation and inequality, the American Football League (AFL) All-Star game of 1965 was set to be held in New Orleans. However, racial tensions and discrimination were still pervasive in the South. Black players were subjected to segregation and mistreatment. As a result, black players from the AFL’s All-Star teams threatened to boycott the game unless the league moved it to a more inclusive location. The AFL commissioner eventually agreed to relocate the game to Houston, marking a significant step toward recognizing the importance of athlete activism and fair treatment.
1972 Summer Olympics (Munich):
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich witnessed a tragic event that led to the suspension of the games. Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by the Palestinian group Black September. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially decided to continue the games, sparking outrage and condemnation from various quarters. In response, several African nations, led by Kenya, threatened to withdraw from the games in protest against the IOC’s decision. This collective action led to the suspension of the Olympics for 34 hours, highlighting the athletes’ power to influence global events beyond sports.
The 1987 NFL Strike:
The 1987 National Football League (NFL) strike was a significant moment in the history of player-ownership relations. Players demanded greater rights, including free agency and a larger share of the league’s revenue. The strike lasted for 24 days, causing the cancellation of one week of games. Eventually, a compromise was reached, leading to improvements in players’ working conditions and financial compensation. This strike showcased the athletes’ determination to secure their rights and the impact of their collective unity.
1995 NBA Strike:
The 1995 NBA strike revolved around the issue of player salaries and the league’s salary cap. Players believed that the existing salary cap limited their earning potential, and they wanted a greater share of the league’s revenue. The strike delayed the start of the 1995-1996 NBA season by 464 games. After months of negotiations, a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, addressing some of the players’ concerns. This strike underscored the financial complexities of professional sports and the players’ commitment to achieving a fairer distribution of the league’s profits.
WNBA Strikes for Social Justice (2020):
In the wake of heightened social justice movements following the killing of George Floyd, players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) decided to use their platform to advocate for racial equality. Players from various teams, including the Minnesota Lynx, refused to play in scheduled games, instead using the opportunity to address issues of police violence and systemic racism. Their actions resonated with fans and athletes across sports, showcasing the growing intersection of sports and social activism.
Back to practical questions about the practicalities of holding a major WTA event in Saudi Arabia:
The answer is a hard no.
For those unfamiliar with Daria “Dasha” Kasatkina, she is a Russian player who qualified for last year’s WTA Finals and is currently sitting right in the mix at number 11 in the race (the 8 players with the most tournament points in the calendar year qualify for the finals).
A year ago, Kasatkina came out through a long interview with a famous young Russian vlogger. She and her partner, former professional figure skater, Russian-Estonian Natalia Zabiiako, travel the world together and run a very popular YouTube channel chronicling life on the WTA Tour and their lives together.
Given that the WTA was completely incompetent in keeping Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai safe, why would any realistic observer believe that the WTA can keep not just Dasha Kasatkina safe, but any of the players who would play singles and doubles in Saudi?
What all of this boils down to is money. I definitely sound like a broken record on this but the key to fixing a broken business model is not to throw the dirtiest of money at it. Since the WTA isn’t prepared to make the organizational changes to move forward successfully and doesn’t understand that their actions are tearing apart their brand, we find ourselves, remarkably, on the brink of a WTA finals in Saudi Arabia.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.