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Steve Flink: Dubai Deliberations

2/23/2009 1:31:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Ken Solomon is a confirmed workaholic. As CEO of Tennis Channel, Solomon's life is consumed by a ceaseless stream of professional challenges, the sometimes overwhelming demands of a sweepingly diversified and complicated job, and the self induced pressure that a man in his shoes seldom escapes. He is never off duty, always surrounded by colleagues and associates who need his full attention almost around the clock, often engulfed in a world where days seem to be over almost before they have even begun.

So when a longtime friend recently urged him to get away briefly for a couple of days to ski and clear his head, Solomon mulled it over and realized, "I never do anything like this." He decided the plan made sense. But as Solomon left California to hit the slopes in Utah, the tennis world was ablaze with the news that Shahar Peer--- Israel's top woman player---had been denied a visa to compete at Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships in the UAE. Solomon knew not long before he departed for Utah that the Peer dilemma was growing.

Not until he landed in Utah, however, did Solomon--- who never did get the chance to ski--- have a chance to fully recognize the magnitude of the moment. He spoke with Larry Scott--- CEO of Sony Ericsson WTA Tour--- and they exchanged views on the outrageous decision of those in charge to refuse Peer her right to play in the Dubai tournament. Solomon knew in his heart that he had to take a stance and pull the Dubai women's event off his airwaves. He took some time to consult with business colleagues and associates, and realized that a bold step was a necessity from his standpoint. Solomon then explained his stance to Scott.

"I called Larry, "Solomon told me in an interview on February 20, "and told him I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything from his perspective. I wanted him to understand our decision not to put the tournament on the air, and he did. His response was exactly what you would hope it would be from a partner. We had a mutual understanding of our positions and we were motivated similarly. Some people said, ‘Why couldn't they [the WTA] have done more.' But I don't second guess his decision. Nobody can until you are sitting in that chair. I have real respect for what Larry decided to do."

Scott's initial response was understandably measured; had he not been told so close to the start of the tournament, he almost surely would have called the whole thing off. Instead, he said in a statement, "We are deeply disappointed by the decision of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) denying Shahar Peer a visa that would permit her to enter the country to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships. Miss Peer has earned the right to play in the tournament and it is regrettable that the UAE is denying her this right. Following various consultations, the Tour has decided to allow the tournament to be played this week, pending further review by the Tour's Board of Directors.... The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour believes very strongly, and has a clear rule and policy, that no host country should deny a player the right to compete at a tournament for which she has qualified by ranking."

Four days later, Scott and the Tour issued a suitably tough press release announcing some hard remedies against the tournament. They fined the event $300,000 for breach of Tour Rules, By-Laws and conditions of membership related to the denial of entry to Shahar Peer, affirming "This fine represents the highest ever levied against a Tour member." In turn, the WTA Tour brought forth a $2,000,000 "Financial Performance Guarantee", assigning a date of July 1, 2009 for those terms to be met. And then they listed a series of guidelines that the Dubai tournament must meet to be included in the 2010 calendar, including a wild card for Peer should she need it.

In any case, the view here is that Scott and his colleagues did the best they could under difficult circumstances to fight back against a grave injustice. For her part, Peer was dignified and selfless throughout the ordeal. After referring to the "tremendous outpouring of support and empathy over the UAE decision to deny me a visa that would allow me to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to my friends and fans around the world. While this is a very difficult moment for me personally and professionally, and the fact that the visa denial was issued at the last moment, I firmly believe that my fellow competitors should not be harmed the way I was."

That was nothing short of noble for Peer to resist the impulse for self centered sorrow and to support the WTA Tour and the players. In the end, she must have felt vindicated by her decision. Not only did Solomon take his brave stand by refusing to show the tournament on his network, but his position was lauded in the New York Times, and other authorities spoke out along similar lines.

Fortunately, for one and all, another international tennis crisis was averted when the UAE decided to allow another Israeli player--- doubles specialist Andy Ram--- to compete this week in the Barclays [Men's] Dubai Tennis Championships. As International Tennis Hall of Fame President Tony Trabert told me after that breakthrough, "Obviously they got enough grief from enough people that they changed their mind. I just don't think politics and sports should collide. Anyone that is qualified to play on the men's or women's tour should be able to play anywhere there is a tournament regardless of sex, religion, or political views. They [the UAE] claimed they were worried about protecting Shahar Peer in Dubai at the event. But after Monica Seles was stabbed at a tournament in 1993, they have figured out a way to protect tennis players all over the world."

Solomon was deeply offended by the notion that the authorities in Dubai could contend that security would have been an issue for them with respect to Peer. "For me, "he laments, "that was the hardest moment of all when the official reaction from the UAE and the answer for it was Shahar Peer's safety. That is the moment where it went from something that was horribly misguided in the decision making process to being really escalated in most people's minds just how wrong and what a problem this was. It had that false air of an excuse that unfortunately reconfirmed the misguidedness of the decision in a very scary way."

Trabert was appalled as well by the actions of the UAE. Speaking of Dubai, he says, "They are trying to be on of the sports centers of the world, and you have got to know when you do something like they did with Peer that you are going to ruffle feathers. That is like the way we treated blacks 60 years ago and it just isn't right. If you want to be a sports Mecca you certainly can't have that kind of thing happening. It is sad that the athlete ends up in the middle of something like this. The athlete doesn't have anything to do with his or her government. I don't have anything to do with what Barack Obama plans to do as our President. I am an American citizen but that's it. So why penalize me?"

It is Trabert's belief that something went on behind the scenes that may well have led to the UAE making amends to allow Ram into the country only one week after Peer was forced to stay out. "If they had not given Ram a visa, "he asserts, "I would have been very surprised if either the ATP or WTA would have played a tournament over there [in the future]. You have got to support all of your people and players. I have no idea who brought pressure to bear but I am sure somebody did to make them realize their original decision with Peer was not a wise one. Something probably happened to make them agree to let another Israeli in the next week, like an ambassador getting together with local people, or something along those lines."

It is beyond conjecture that Solomon's courage to take a principled stand surely made a difference, and the view here is that his decision to not broadcast the Dubai women's event on the airwaves of Tennis Channel was highly consequential. The reverberations of his position were felt all over the country and around the world. As he explains, "It was absolutely, clearly the right thing for us to do. Particularly with issues that revolve around morality, I find that they are black and white. I am hopefully a responsible business person, so I said let's quickly test this and make sure I am not missing anything. I consulted people both inside the company as well as investors on all perspectives for a few hours, and I found that universally people felt the same way I did. The good news is that they seemed emboldened by the clarity they felt I had."

Solomon watched the events unfold last week, saw that the UAE backed down when it came to admitting Ram into the country, and came away with a well deserved sense of making a substantial contribution to an immensely important cause. When I asked him how satisfied he was to have played a leading role on an issue so large, he replied, "We feel humble satisfaction, and I say that not to be modest but because it is true. This is a big deal and you can't think about it in those terms when you are in the process of making decisions. You just have to try to think about what is right. But we are both surprised and extraordinarily proud that we had the opportunity to do something that--- while it wasn't necessarily the goal--- ended up contributing something that was meaningful, and something that righted a wrong in many ways."

As he spoke with considerable thoughtfulness and intelligence about Peer's misfortune and the relief felt around the tennis community with Ram gaining his entry into Dubai, Solomon recollected that Ram---- who reached No. 5 in the world in doubles last year and stands at No. 11 currently--- did not get a visa to compete in the same event a year ago. "It really didn't come to the light of day last year when Andy wasn't admitted, "says Solomon. " We weren't covering that tournament at Tennis Channel in 2008, but the way that unfolded with Andy last year was a bit under a shroud. It [the issue] ended up going away and was swept under the carpet. All the way through the French Open last year, I was personally trying to chase this thing down, just trying to figure it out. It was very hard to get accurate information from anybody about that. There was no central person I could talk to who could tell me the whole story, but what happened seemed entirely inappropriate, entirely wrong, and outrageous in some ways. Yet we couldn't quite get our hands around it."

Be that as it may, Solomon was perhaps more attuned than just about anyone else to the mistreatment of Ram a year ago, and he would not have broadcast the men's Dubai event this week if Ram had been victimized again. He has the deepest degree of respect for Ram's conduct in both 2008 and 2009, for his quiet dignity and restraint. "He is not the kind of guy to walk around with a chip on his shoulder holding a grudge. I think Shahar is the same way. They are principled people who are not out to make a point. They are out to compete; their point is their performances. And that was our point in deciding not to put the Dubai women's tournament on the air this year. I don't think I can completely articulate how I feel about this, but we are extremely proud. A lot of factors played into it. The way things happened in the ‘Chaos Theory' of the world, we ended up having a significant role in this and it is nice to know if you can do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing, it can actually have a positive result."

But how does he envision the road ahead? Could there be a reoccurrence of the Dubai debacle in the future? "To answer that question, "responds Solomon, "let me put it this way. If Jesse Owens had not gone to Germany to compete because he was afraid, if Jackie Robinson 60 years ago hadn't played in Brooklyn in spite of the fact that there were racists in the crowd who were threatening him and his owners and his team members, if Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King hadn't continued to play in spite of the fact that the world was not then as enlightened about sexual preference, if Arthur Ashe hadn't gone to the U.S. Open when there were obviously still racist tensions, this world would not be the world we live in today."

Tying that all in with what just occurred in Dubai, Solomon continues, "We can look back on this and feel as if this was one more significant moment when the wrong ideology was allowed to prevail [in the case of Shahar Peer] because we were at a time in the world where there is economic and political concern that is heightened. And then all of a sudden it is o.k. and the excuse passes. But the excuse didn't pass, and Andy Ram is going to be playing in Dubai. Hopefully this decision has been made not just for Andy Ram but for any player from any country and any ethnic background, any race, creed or color, coming to compete in Dubai or any other country for that matter."

And yet, having said that, Solomon is worried about what could occur at the upcoming Sweden-Israel Davis Cup clash in March. That contest may well be devoid of spectators. As Solomon said three days before news broke that the Sweden/Israel tie might be moved to a new location in Sweden, "I am pretty concerned. How can we be at a point where Sweden could have an empty stadium for Davis Cup? It is frightening. My understanding of it is that the local authorities are concerned about agitation from local Arab ex-patriot populations and threats and concerns connected to the staging of that Davis Cup tie. The great tragedy is when those that threaten get their way."

Solomon returns to the case of Andy Ram, and weaves that into his anxieties about the Sweden-Israel Davis Cup confrontation. "Look at the situation in Gaza, "he asserts. " They pointed to what happened in Gaza as the reason for the enhanced agitation [that would have occurred in Dubai], but that was fallacious because that wasn't happening a year ago for Andy Ram. This was policy and it was consistent policy, and to point to that was offensive. What is the great place of sports? It is to diffuse that kind of agitation, to remind people that we are all the same, to remind everyone of our common humanity. So in Sweden, the bad guys win if they play to a closed stadium in that Davis Cup competition against Israel."

He pauses for an instant, then says, " My goal now--- and it doesn't look like we can do it--- is this: I want to telecast Sweden playing Israel even though we are not scheduled to put it on the air since we are doing the U.S. against Switzerland the same weekend [March 6-8]. I really want to find a way to put Sweden-Israel on the air."

Even if Solomon is unable to find a way to make that happen, the goal is admirable. The game needs that kind of thinking from those who wield enough authority to dream the largest of dreams, and turn them into reality. The harsh realities of the world should not prevent the leaders of tennis from moving forward with clear eyed integrity.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com

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