Wendell Brown home after three years in Chinese prison

Wendell Brown hugs relatives after his arrival at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Romulus, Mich. Brown returned from China where he was imprisoned for his involvement in a bar fight. Brown, a native of Detroit had been teaching English and American football in southwest China when he was arrested in September 2016 and charged with intentional assault. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
/ Credit: Wendell Brown hugs relatives after his arrival at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Romulus, Mich. Brown returned from China where he was imprisoned for his involvement in a bar fight. Brown, a native of Detroit had been teaching English and American football in southwest China when he was arrested in September 2016 and charged with intentional assault. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

Former Ohio State linebacker and Canadian Football League alum Wendell Brown returned to the U.S. this week after spending three years in a Chinese prison for his involvement in a bar fight.

Brown had been teaching football in Chongqing for local youths as well as coaching the Chongqing Dockers when an incident at a bar saw him getting a four-year prison sentence.

Brown was detained for two years before his case was even brought before a judge. Last November, he was granted early release, with September 24, 2019 set as his release date.

Back home, a drunken encounter might lead to a night in the cells to cool off, instead of a three-year ordeal during which Brown received almost no contact with his family, and very little due process. In addition, Brown has always maintained his innocence, saying he was simply defending himself after an encounter at a birthday party got out of hand.

Media coverage of his case has been spotty, but video footage apparently shows a bottle initially thrown in Brown’s direction at the start of the scuffle.

With Brown maintaining his innocence, he opted against settling out of court with the defendant in his case, who had suffered a serious eye injury.

His fate stands in stark contrast to the experience of three other American athletes in China, each of whom admitted to committing a crime but served far less time: That would be UCLA basketball players LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill, and Cody Riley, who were caught shoplifting in Hangzhou two years ago ahead of an NCAA basketball game in Shanghai.

That news broke just as President Trump touched down for his first state visit to China, meaning the incident, unlike Brown’s, became part of the global news cycle.

While Trump’s claim to have secured the players’ release was later debunked, the fact that U.S.-China stakes were so high at the time surely expedited a deal being cut. The trio returned just one week after being arrested, and were even allowed to spend their detention at a plush hotel, where they subsisted on a diet of cheesy fries and buffalo wings.

Brown received help from the White House, the State Department, and Michigan state officials during his time inside, but apparently none of the parties were able to influence the process on this occasion.

Incredibly, Brown, who has a 12-year-old son, denied feeling bitter or angry over his experience, telling reporters on his arrival back in Detroit, “It’s all love and it’s all blessings.”

There’s sure to be a film about his story released at some stage, with documentary maker Matt Liston one of the most active people in campaigning for Brown’s release.


Jeremy Lin has been introduced to the media in Beijing, with local reporters asking him about his future plans for international ball.

The main question: given the stream of foreign athletes now being courted with Chinese passports in a bid to strengthen national teams from soccer to ice hockey, would Lin — an American whose parents emigrated from Taiwan and whose maternal grandmother was from Zhejiang — ever represent China on the world stage?

“It’s definitely something that has always been on my radar,” Lin replied. “The best way I can describe it is that it’s a very, very complex decision. It’s really not a decision one person can make. It’s something I have considered and something I’ll continue to consider.”

It’s tempting to read between the lines here and conclude that this is something that may happen, but, for my money, he won’t take the bait.

The question is legitimate — it’s not the first time he’s been asked this and it certainly won’t be the last — but the Harvard graduate knows his way around the sensitive issues at this point.

In other words, it’s a polite, diplomatic response that promises nothing.

If he were to make the switch, though, it could be commercial suicide.

He’s already amassed a huge following in China, so he wouldn’t really gain additional fans on the mainland if he were to pull on the red jersey of China, but fans in the Chinese diaspora in the U.S., plus those in Taiwan, would denounce him as a traitor.

Think Rory McIlroy choosing between the two Irelands and magnify that by 100.

There’s no scenario in which a nationality switch would be worth the trouble for Lin.


In the world of ice hockey, few analysts have as much credibility as Bob Mackenzie.

That said, he spoke this week about why NHL players won’t come to China for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and I think he got it wrong.

He’s on the money when he says that league commissioner Gary Bettman and the team owners have “zero interest” in shutting down their league for three weeks.

But his cited example of the gold medal game in Salt Lake City in 2002 as to why that’s their view doesn’t stand up.

Those Games featured the “dream” matchup of USA and Canada for the final, but, according to McKenzie, the NHL saw no tangible economic boost from the Olympic exposure, and even witnessed deflated viewing figures once the league restarted.

But that was in North America, where hockey’s level as a sport has remained fairly consistent for years.

What about the global growth of the game, something that basketball has done so successfully?

With hockey beginning to see some green shoots in China, it’s no longer hypothetical to suggest that the Chinese market could benefit from ice hockey at the Olympics.

Fans of all sports want to see the best of the best — hence why the NBA remains the most popular league in China.

And while it’s not the NHL’s primary responsibility to grow the game of hockey outside of North America, if NHL players went to the Olympics, the league’s numbers would surely rise in China following the Games (even if viewing figures back home saw a slight dip, as in 2002).

That’s a direct path to the actual revenue the owners care so much about.

McKenzie and others should be refuting the NHL’s fallacious argument, not repeating it.


The World Athletics Championships have begun in Doha in baking temperatures, with China surprisingly on top of the points table (under the IAAF system of awarding points to the top eight athletes in each discipline) after the first two days.

With a 1-2 finish in the women’s 50km walk and a bronze in the women’s hammer already in the bag, the team is hoping to improve on its total of seven (two gold, three silver, three bronze) from 2017 — all won by women — which placed China in an impressive fifth position overall.

Many of China’s best hopes in Doha will come from those who won medals two years ago, with women’s shotput champion Gong Lijiao favored to retain her title, and several female race walkers also vying for gold in the shorter 20km race.

Meanwhile, javelin thrower Lü Huihui has a world championship silver and bronze already, and sits on top of the world rankings, meaning she’d be desperately disappointed not to complete her set this time.

Elsewhere, having last year built sprinter Su Bingtian up into the next Liu Xiang — something he was never able to be — Chinese media are still citing him as a medal contender.

But that’s just fantasy, with Su coming off an injury and ranked 19th worldwide this year.

In fact, the biggest win for China at these World Championships may already have come off the track, with the announcement that Wanda will become the title partner of the IAAF’s Diamond League for the next 10 years, a deal the IAAF described as “the biggest commercial partnership in the history of athletics.”

The partnership claims that it will promote the development of Chinese athletics — though specifics are not yet available — but it appears that a new annual event will be held in China in addition to the existing Shanghai Diamond League meet each year.

Wanda Sports CEO Yang Hengming referred to the group’s objective of bringing top-class sporting events to China, and it’s known that the company is looking to create a new top-tier marathon event in China, thanks to its tie-up with the World Marathon Majors.

In terms of marathons, at least, anywhere but Doha would be an improvement.

The women’s race on Saturday saw 28 of the 68 participants drop out mid-race due to the heat, despite the race starting at midnight local time.

Not a great look for organizers…


Highlight of the Week:

This week’s video highlight comes from Zhuhai, where British tennis player Andy Murray has been continuing his unlikely comeback from a hip surgery in January that he had assumed at the time would end his career. Murray lost 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to Australia’s Alex de Minaur in the second round of the Zhuhai Championships, but his reaction after beating Tennys Sandgren in the first round — his first tour-level singles win since the surgery — went viral, but not for reasons you might expect. Pictured below, Murray was filmed clearing his bench of trash, and recycling all his water bottles afterwards. Beijing residents can thank him in person next week when he continues his comeback at the China Open.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.