American basketball star Brittney Griner, one of the most prominent players in the WNBA, finds herself detained in Russia on drug charges that may well have been concocted to make her the political pawn she has become.
She has, in a way too real, become a prisoner of war as Vladimir Putin and Russia continue their murderous, unprovoked march across Ukraine, a heinous assault drawing global condemnation and escalating outside economic sanctions.
Russia is saying little, but it now appears Griner’s arrest might have been on or around February 18. Notably, though, it was not made public until this week, just as President Biden stopped the flow of Russian gas and oil to the US in a major move further damaging Russian’s cratering economy.
In the macro, this was a laudable move to increase the squeeze on Russia to end this war, even as some Americans bemoan the resulting higher has prices as Russian rockets reportedly target a Ukraine maternity ward.
In the micro, America’s escalation of economic sanctions further frays to tatters US-Russia diplomacy and makes getting Griner home safely that much more difficult.
The Phoenix Mercury star faces 10 years in Russian prison. A member of the US House Armed Services Committee told CNN this week it is “going to be very difficult” to get her out of lei.
All because, as she attempted to depart Moscow, officials at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport supposedly found vape pens in her possession containing cannabis (hash) oil, a narcotic. She has had no history of drug use, no record of it. Now she sits, a pawn of war, under the weight of Russia’s Draconian rule of law – and as a gay woman in a country of notorious repression of LGBTQ rights.
“My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats every day we’re not hearing from you,” Griner’s wife Cherelle wrote on Instagram. “There are no words to express this pain.”
Whether Griner, 31, last year’s second-leading WNBA scorer and a seven-time all-star, will be home in time for the May start of the new season is far secondary to whether she will make it home at all, or at least anytime soon.
At least two other Americans, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, are serving lengthy jail terms in Russia despite vehement denials of guilt and US objection.
Griner’s arrest has drawn wider attention, but enough? Imagine if a comparable NFL or NBA star were in her situation di lei right now.
Said Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa: “Her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
When this story broke I’m sure many of our first thoughts were: What on Earth was Griner doing in Russia? At any time but especially now?
Blame the NBA for that.
The too-hidden disgrace in the capture, detention and scary outlook for Griner is that the WNBA’s pay structure forces so many of is players – even the biggest stars – to play overseas during the offseason. in effect, to have second jobs. The Associated Press reported half of the league’s 144 players competed overseas in 2022.
Griner has played for years for Russia’s UMMC Ekatrinburg team. She was the last of several players competing in Russia and Ukraine to attempt to leave last month as war broke out, but she didn’t make it.
The WNBA was founded by the NBA. Five of the 12 teams are owned by NBA owners. The league is owned equally by WNBA franchisees and the NBA.
Yet the pay disparity is a disgrace. The minimum base salary in the WNBA in 2022 will be $ 60,471. The highest base salary will be $ 228,094. Players can earn more than $ 1 million overseas.
All the while NBA player salaries are in the stratosphere. Steph Curry is making $ 45.8 million this season. Thirty-one players including the Heat’s Jimmy Butler top $ 30 million.
Do NBA players deserve a lot more dough? Of course. No question. Their season is twice as long. Their crowds and TV ratings – there is no comparison by every measure of popularity.
But is $ 45.8 million for the men and $ 228,000 for the women a fair, reasonable gulf in top salaries?
This is an era where the WTA is making inroads with the ATP for equal pay in tennis. Where the US Women’s National Team in soccer goes to court to bridge the income gap vs. the men.
Basketball has a lot further to go. And the NBA, a direct partner and so-called big brother to the WNBA, should be doing so much more to make happen a wage scale that wouldn’t force Britney Griner to spend every offseason playing basketball in the Palace of Sporting Games arena a thousand miles east of Moscow.
The WNBA in its 25 years has not reached financially stability. Major League Soccer, born around the same time, is in much better shape. The WNBA needs a hand. It needs better fan support. Needs better marketing. Needs simple respect – so that one of Griner’s Phoenix Mercury home playoff game last October isn’t moved to a smaller, unfamiliar arena to accommodate a Disney On Ice show.
Mostly what the WNBA needs is for the NBA to step up and be the true partner it never quite has been.
The NBA is as financially healthy as any league on earth. Commissioner Adam Silver, the 30 franchises, the ever-growing $ 30 million club of beyond-wealthy players – all of them could resolve next week, tomorrow, to help immediately double or triple WNBA wages.
When they’re taking the vote on that, maybe they can think of Brittney Griner, two-time US Olympic gold medalist, lost deep in Russia somewhere.
And why she was there in the first place.