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Saturday sports: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappears

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports, which are often a respite from life-and-death news, but this week there is sharp concern about the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. She's not been seen in more than two weeks, when she leveled accusations of sexual assault against a top Communist Party official in China, and her apparent disappearance raises questions about how international associations are addressing or avoiding questions about her safety just 90 days before athletes from around the world arrive for the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media joins us. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: These are very serious accusations she made, and Peng Shuai must've known there was risk in talking and making those accusations about Zhang Gaoli, former vice premier.

BYRANT: Yes, and no question. I know that - we don't get a chance to talk about tennis very often, but this is really not a tennis story. And she was a No. 1 doubles player, very well respected in the game, champion-level player, represented her country on three occasions in the Olympics. And the allegations that she made November 2 against the high-ranking Chinese official, who's 40 years older than she, that there was a coercion of sexual favors three years ago. No one has seen or heard from her, and her social media has essentially been scrubbed. And there was - a few hours ago, a state-run media outlet announced that she will be seen very soon.

And this is a challenge. This is not just a human rights challenge. Certainly, the question, of course, of where is she has spurred all kinds of questions from her fellow players - from Serena Williams, from Novak Djokovic, from Naomi Osaka, from all the top players. And the No. 1 question, obviously, is where is she, and what is the status of her safety? And three days ago, a message went out supposedly from her, a statement from her saying that she was fine and that she denied all of the allegations at the same time that the Chinese government was denying the existence of any allegations, including her post. And so the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association - Steve Simon, the president, came out and immediately said he did not believe any of these - any of the response from China. So they're very, very concerned.

And what it really does, Scott, more than anything else on this is it puts into question going into business with a country with an oppressive human rights record. You've got the Olympics coming up in February. The WTA has 11 events in China. They've gone all-in on China, billions of dollars into their sport. And what is this going to do in terms of the United States' response? How are you going to square all of the money that you've put in against your supposed claim that you care about human rights? This is a huge story.

SIMON: Yeah. And let's note at the end today, allegations of sexual misconduct, of course, also surfaced in the National Women's Soccer League this fall. But today, the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars are facing off in the final championship match. What do you look for?

BYRANT: Well, hopefully what you're looking for is a good game, and I think this is one of the things that people want from sports is to get away from some of the issues. But if you're in the NWSL, you need a great game. You need something to take away from - you need better conduct because you had an entire league with a league shutdown at one point because the players have been alleging horrible inaction against allegations by the coaches in this league. So people need to behave better, and even the best game in the world isn't going to solve this if they don't.

SIMON: One day, my friend, we'll talk about the playing of sports again, won't we?

BYRANT: Hopefully.

SIMON: All right, Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media, talk to you soon. Thanks very much.

BYRANT: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.