The Brittney Griner question: Should the NBA be a capitalist or socialist enterprise?

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) drives between Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson and center Liz Cambage (8) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) drives between Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson and center Liz Cambage (8) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Brittney Griner was born to play basketball, not to play hostage to a Russian autocrat or to take center stage in a debate about economics.

But here she is. Life is full of little surprises.

The Russia chapter is over, but the economic debate rolls on about women’s professional basketball and whether the men’s side of the sport should highly subsidize the salaries, working conditions and travel accommodations of female players.

In short, Griner’s unfortunate excursion through the Russian penal system has provoked a fundamental question about professional basketball:

Should the NBA/WNBA run as separate capitalist enterprises or a single socialist one?

Air travel provokes a gender pay-gap debate

The question gained greater resonance this week when USA Today and other news organizations reported that security issues rising from Griner’s prisoner swap with Russia required she take either private or charter flights to away games and not the much cheaper commercial flights all other WNBA players fly.

Because the WNBA has lost money year over year, it cannot afford the charter flights the much richer men’s league (NBA) enjoys.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said her league has worked hard to find sponsors to foot the $20 million bill for charter flights for all WNBA teams. However, “when people price it out, you never hear from them again.”

Without sponsors and without the help of the NBA, it’s back to commercial. Which begs the question, is there a double standard here?

Charter flights for the men. Commercial flights for the women.

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“Pretty much everyone I spoke to is in agreement that this is a fake problem,” tweeted USA Today sportswriter Lindsay Schnell. “The NBA has plenty of money & could easily pay for charters.”

Plenty of money for sure. The NBA generates roughly $10 billion in revenues per year.

The WNBA generates about $60 million in revenue. To understand the difference between a billion and a million, you need to multiply a million 1,000 times to get a billion.

Not only does the WNBA earn a tiny fraction of the NBA, it loses roughly $10 million a year.

U.S. Soccer changed the game on profit-sharing

This question takes on greater resonance when you look at what the U.S. Soccer Federation did when it announced last May that its men’s and women’s teams had agreed to split 50/50 the prize money from the World Cup and other competitions in which they both compete, along with an equal share of broadcast, partner and sponsorship revenue.

The U.S. Men’s Soccer team has decided to use its greater revenues to subsidize U.S. Women’s Soccer.

“One can only hope that this new soccer agreement creates enough pressure for other elite sports organizations to get their equity ducks in a row to address pay gaps that have left athletes like Griner vulnerable,” Amy Bass, a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College in New York, wrote in a CNN guest column.

The two professional leagues have also embraced the social justice framework of “diversity, equity and inclusion” that promotes leveling the playing fields so that all Americans can equally enjoy the fruits of this country.

Equity in this sense represents an equality of outcomes. It would replace what had been a national ethos of equality of opportunity – give people the training and let them achieve what they will based on their own hard work and ambition. That has been the American Creed.

For equity to work in professional basketball, the people who generate the greater share of the money must be willing to part with some of their earnings.

Would the NBA give up earnings for the WNBA?

Will LeBron James and Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić and Steph Curry – the greatest players in the game ‒ willingly turn over a portion of their salaries to underwrite women’s basketball? Will the NBA owners?

Do they have a responsibility to raise up the women’s league, which has so far struggled to make a profit?

I would argue no.

They have already helped the WNBA a great deal. The women’s league might cease to exist had the NBA not lifted it up in its early years. Today’s NBA stars are fabulously wealthy, but they stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of NBA players who made far less money and worked other jobs to get by.

The NBA, founded in 1946, has a 50-year jump on the WNBA, which was founded in 1996. Those early years in the men’s league represent years of toil and low pay spent building a business.

The WNBA is rising faster than the men’s game, because the NBA is there to provide support. Many NBA players attend WNBA games and promote and market the league and its players.

The free market already is working for WNBA

But will they agree to profit-sharing the way U.S. Soccer has done?

LeBron James is a free-market capitalist. Yes, he has physical gifts for basketball, but he’s a virtuoso of the game. He rose through hard work and high standards to become the greatest player in history.

He’s an example of how markets improve society. He has not stuffed his millions away in a mattress, but has invested them in businesses and schools and foundations that serve, among others, the African American community.

He is a river to his people.

Free market capitalism is the greatest engine for prosperity that man has devised. It won’t turn your young business into the NBA overnight, but if you work hard and work smart you will build wealth.

The free market is already working for the WNBA. Last year the young league announced it had secured the single largest investment in a woman’s sports history – $75 million in new capital.

And it’s working for Brittney Griner, whose net worth is reported to be $5 million. Much of that wealth came from playing basketball in Russia, but Russian oligarchs were paying premium prices for extraordinary talent.

You know what that’s called?

A market.

Phil Boas is an Editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Brittney Griner's flight problem teaches us a lot about capitalism