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A protester on day twelve of the 2022 Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, London, on July 8, 2022.Zac Goodwin/The Associated Press

Back in March, the Women’s Tennis Association announced the next phase of its campaign to rescue one of its own.

For a year and a half, it had pressured China to give the organization access to former pro Peng Shuai. Peng disappeared from public life after a series of social-media posts accusing a senior Chinese government official of abuse.

Shortly after the posts were made in 2021, the WTA and many of its highest-profile players went ballistic on the internet. The association pulled its business from China. It was big news for weeks. And then nothing happened.

So in order to show China who was in charge, the WTA decided to completely give in. Instead of holding no tournaments in the country, it would do six. The biggest of them would pay out $10-million in Chinese prize money to Peng’s defenders.

Per the usual playbook, this collective rolling over was sold as zigging while everyone else zagged.

“We’ve been in this for 16 months and we are convinced that at this point our requests will not be met,” WTA chief Steve Simon told the BBC. “To continue with the same strategy doesn’t make sense and a different approach is needed. Hopefully, by returning, more progress can be made.”

Zero progress was made, but a few rich people got richer.

If 2022 was the year sports flexed its muscle on the social issues its constituents felt strongly about, then 2023 was when those constituents realized that the crusade for a more just and equitable world doesn’t pay all that well. This was the year everyone rediscovered how lucrative hypocrisy can be.

It wasn’t that long ago that no sporting event could be held without a show of solidarity for one cause or another. Players were speaking out or kneeling or wearing T-shirts or some combo mixer of all those things at once. They weren’t going to go along with the old way of doing things. Until they were.

Now that we’re able to see the whole of this protest blip in the rear-view mirror, you have to give credit to most leagues. They slow-rolled this to perfection.

They learned those lessons the hard way. Their old playbook came from Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest. The NFL allowed itself to be lured into playing the villain in that piece.

Kaepernick wasn’t blackballed by football. Not exactly. Rather, he discovered an old rule – all-stars are permitted opinions, and backups don’t get that luxury. But the story that took hold was that he had been silenced by the powers above.

Nike (briefly) made Kaepernick a centrepiece of its marketing. A new paradigm was being created. Pros could supercharge their personal brands by stepping outside their athletic persona and adopting a political one.

The trick was finding the right injustice and highlighting it. A second necessary ingredient was an antagonist – preferably an unloved institution – to legitimize the struggle. This wasn’t multi-millionaire Athlete X, recently seen cavorting on some skeezeball’s yacht in St. Tropez, out there spouting off. This was one little guy fighting City Hall.

Having learned from the NFL’s Kaepernick fiasco, leagues switched tactics. They turned themselves into social-justice laboratories. If the players yelled about something, the leagues stood behind them yelling just as loud.

The WTA and Peng was the quintessential example. In years past, when the players began acting out, they might’ve have been told to quiet down and get back in line. Whatever you do, do not endanger the money. Presto – there’s your platform.

But the WTA put itself in line instead. And not just by saying something. It did something. It cut China out of its business. Then it waited for the players to feel the financial effect of that. A year and a half later, Peng was still nowhere to be seen, so the players agreed it was time to hang the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner and get back to work.

Perhaps the plan wasn’t quite this cynical in its conception, but the outcome certainly was.

Everywhere in 2023, leagues could not stop from going on and on about equity. The further out in front they ran, the more the players receded.

In order to become a revolutionary hero, you must be seen to suffer. There are no Che Guevara T-shirts if the guy spends his golden years playing pickleball in Cabo.

No one in sports risked anything. Nobody was blacklisted. Quite the opposite – a few of sports’ loudest critics became corporate darlings. Someone like mental-health advocate Naomi Osaka discovered she could make as much money, more even, by choosing not to play tennis than she could playing it.

But the returns were diminishing rapidly. Now that everyone had the correct opinions on everything, there wasn’t enough conflict to draw interest.

The NHL didn’t get the go-along-to-get-along memo and it still couldn’t drive traffic with its screw-ups. Pride jersey night was a disaster? Oh well, sorry, we’ll do better. Pride tape bans a disaster? Oh well, sorry, we’ll do better.

Hockey didn’t play this anywhere near as smart as its peers, but it understood the most important thing – just keeping saying you’re sorry. People have no idea what to do with that.

Two, three years ago, we were having serious philosophical discussions about the intersection of human rights, sports and state-level investment by autocracies. Now we’re talking about how we can figure out a World Cup of Hockey that includes Russia and when Saudi Arabia should get an Olympics.

The fundamentals never changed. Money was, is and always will be everyone’s paramount concern. The protest era flared so brightly because, for an instant, fighting the power became a potential vein of revenue.

Now that it’s tapped out, leagues know what they have to do. Just keep commiserating with everyone on everything. That way, the likelihood of genuine protest is vastly reduced.

They are aided immensely every time a WTA membership folds up, or half the golfers in the world run off to play for beer-league billions in the Middle East. There is no better way to neuter potential dissidents than by handing them a cheque.

Each time a player who says all the right things does the wrong one, his/her peers are also a little tarred by that failure.

All most athletes want is to be a herd member in good standing. The old way of doing that was saying nothing. The new way is repeating whatever everyone else is saying.

It sounds different, but the result – that the people on top remain there – is the same as it ever was.

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