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Before the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury tipped off against Connecticut Sun Thursday evening, both teams huddled up at center court. The lights dimmed as the Sun’s PA announcer called for a moment of silence. It was meant to pay tribute to Phoenix Center Brittney Griner, who had earlier that day been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for drug possession and smuggling of vape cartridges that contained hashish oil. The United States government has designated Griner as wrongfully detained.
What started as a quiet moment, transformed into a rallying cry from fans, who began chanting Griner’s nickname, "BG." Eventually, the chants became a united cacophony of people shouting "Bring her home."
Prior to the game, Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard acknowledged that she and her team knew Griner’s sentencing was a step toward the Russians being ready to discuss a prisoners’ swap with the United States. And following her sentencing on Thursday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, confirmed that to be true. But while all signs point to Griner coming home at some point, Nygaard couldn’t help but express the courage, strength and vulnerability Griner showed while pleading guilty on Thursday.
"I was really amazed by her courage and her strength," Nygaard said. "I couldn't imagine being in that situation."
A day later, in a press conference following the Atlanta Dream’s win over the LA Sparks, Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright addressed Griner’s situation. "Her plight is our plight," Wright said, referring to the entire WNBA. "We will not be whole until BG is home. Whether or not she’s playing is irrelevant. She is our sister, she is a part of this WNBA family."
Wright is correct. Griner’s situation is a direct result of one of the many challenges that professional women basketball players must endure. Most WNBA players, who are some of the most accomplished professional athletes in the world, must resort to playing year round without much rest in between their international and WNBA seasons in order to maximize their talents financially, and provide for themselves and their families.
Griner’s plight is a result of what the status quo has been since the WNBA was established in 1996. A common question that has been asked by media and even by Mercury head coach Nygaard is: If superstar male athletes like Tom Brady or Lebron James were detained in Russia, would they be home by now? Would this atrocity already be resolved?
The answer to that question isn’t a simple yes or no, but the first element to consider is: Would stars like Brady or James be in a foreign country like Russia for work to begin with? And the answer to that is no. Both Brady and James earned around $40 million for both of their most recent seasons. Griner? She earned a base salary of $221,450 during her 2021 season with the Mercury.
Long story short, Griner might not even have been playing in Russia if it weren’t for this pay discrepancy.
Even if a more well-known professional athlete was captured and detained in a nation like Russia, who’s to say Vladimir Putin would have been any more lenient? Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon, who played in the WNBA and Russia and won a bronze medal for the Russian national team in the 2008 Olympics, noted that the Russian government is "an opponent that doesn’t play by the rules" but rather "makes their own rules."
"He wrongfully invaded a whole country," she said, referring Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Ukraine.
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, spoke to BAZAAR.com about Griner’s situation. "This episode is not about Brittney Griner—it is about Vladimir Putin," he said. "It is a bit naive to think that athletes can go to a country like Putin’s Russia and expect that they will be treated honestly and fairly. Putin’s entire regime is based on dishonesty and exercising power."
So, taking Volker’s point seriously, why would professional women’s basketball players play over half their year in an authoritarian regime? The truth is that up to this point, some of the greatest players in the world, including Griner, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, and Jonquel Jones, have played their WNBA off-seasons in Russia.
And the main reason is the way in which they are often compensated by the Russian oligarchs and others who own these basketball teams. Players like Stewart and Jones have earned over $1 million in one season with UMMC Ekaterinburg, the same team that Griner played for before she was arrested at a Moscow airport this past February.
But it’s not just about the pay. For a lot of WNBA players, it’s about some of the other lavish amenities that they receive in Russia that they don’t get in the United States. The WNBA still doesn’t provide its athletes with charter flights during the season to travel to games. Instead, players are now flying Economy Plus, a measure introduced in 2020’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and considered an upgrade from previous options.
In the 2000s, Bird and Taurasi played for Spartak Moscow, a team previously owned by Shabtai Kalmanovich, a former KGB spy-turned-Russian businessman, who was arrested for espionage and was suspected of diamond smuggling in Africa. Kalmonovich treated the athletes on his teams similarly to how men’s pro athletes are treated in the U.S. In addition to the seven-figure salaries, he put his athletes up in the best hotels when traveling and allowed the players to use his credit card. "We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists," Taurasi told ESPN in 2019 (though Russia has not been a communist country for decades). Kalmonovich was assassinated on November 2, 2009.
Back to Griner. Once the U.S. and Russia successfully negotiate her return, what prevents this from happening again? How does the WNBA avoid losing one of its own to a dictatorship or autocratic country? Right now there isn’t a clear answer to that question.
A possible change to the status quo: In 2020, the WNBA instituted a new rule which fines and suspends players for missing training camp. In years prior, skipping out was expected, since overseas seasons often run through mid May. This prioritization rule creates an incentive for players to stay home during the off-season and earn more money by signing onto one of the WNBA’s league marketing deals.
But while that provision kicks in next season, coaches around the league believe that players will continue to play their off-seasons overseas. The pay in countries like Turkey and Hungry is still much better than what players make stateside, even with the new marketing agreements.
"We are still going to have a parade of tremendous women players, internationally in countless countries," Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. "International basketball for a lot of these great WNBA players is not going to slow down anytime soon."
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