Brittney Griner’s Plight Says More About America Than Russia

If the U.S. gave women’s basketball the respect it deserves, the WNBA star might not be in legal jeopardy.

Brittney Griner
Mike Mattina / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

The Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner is one of the most dominant WNBA players ever. Yet now she’s in custody in Russia—a predicament that not only threatens her safety amid a major global crisis but also exposes the inferior status of professional women’s basketball in America.

Russian state media recently reported that Griner is facing drug-smuggling charges after customs agents there said they discovered vaping equipment and cannabis-oil cartridges in her luggage last month at Sheremetyevo Airport, near Moscow. Griner’s arrest happened well after U.S. intelligence began warning that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine but before the military operation began. If convicted, Griner, who was flying from New York back to Russia to continue her stint with one of the country’s premier basketball teams, could face up to 10 years in prison.

For weeks, Griner’s family, her business and legal representatives, the WNBA, the NBA, and some WNBA players were aware of her troubles but, in the hope of not provoking the Russian government, initially avoided drawing attention to them. Last weekend, though, the seven-time WNBA all-star’s wife, Cherelle, posted a picture of her and Griner on Instagram. In her caption, Cherelle wrote: “I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.” On Tuesday, Russian state television released a photo of Griner holding a piece of paper with her name on it while standing against a wall in a Russian police station.

Griner’s plight is especially acute because she’s a Black queer woman being held by authorities in a country that is hostile toward LGBTQ people. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has made a show of embracing “traditional values” that he claims the West has rejected. Last year, he signed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2013, the country passed a “gay propaganda” law that banned distributing information on LGBTQ issues and relationships to minors. (Of course, elected officials in some U.S. states also approve measures targeting gay and transgender people.)

Griner’s decision to play basketball in a country that suppresses personal freedoms is a matter of simple economics. Many WNBA stars work in other countries during the WNBA’s off-season because doing so is more lucrative than playing in the U.S. Griner is reportedly earning more than $1 million to play for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. In the WNBA, her base salary with the Mercury for this past season was $221,450.

Russia wouldn’t be a tantalizing option for America’s best women’s basketball players if they could earn more at home and be treated with the same professional respect as NBA players. It is damning that teams in oppressive countries such as Russia and China—another opportune marketplace for women’s basketball players—place a higher value on players such as Griner than the teams in her own country do. Sports Illustrated recently reported that the WNBA fined the New York Liberty $500,000—the highest fine that women’s professional basketball had ever imposed—for chartering flights for its players in violation of the league’s collective-bargaining agreement. The concern was that by taking chartered flights, Liberty players would be better rested and therefore have an unfair advantage over other teams. That didn’t help the perception that the league is still woefully deficient in supporting its players. Why penalize one WNBA team for investing in its players rather than force the rest of the league to establish a higher standard?

The NBA, which founded the WNBA, shares some of the blame for creating an environment where WNBA players who want to maximize their earning potential must play overseas for a significant part of the year. Five of the 12 WNBA owners also have NBA teams, and there’s no justification for why they continue to relegate their women players to second-class status.

With the Russian military attacking residential areas in a neighboring country and Ukrainian civilians being killed as they try to flee, this might not seem like an appropriate time to point out the inequities that top athletes face. However, Griner’s case has become international news, and she could be in serious trouble if the Russian government decides to use her as a geopolitical pawn.

If Griner has even a modest amount of leverage in Russia, it’s because she has had an extraordinary career with Ekaterinburg, which she has played for since 2015. Griner has helped the club win four EuroLeague Women’s championships and, in the process, the two-time Olympic gold medalist has become a beloved figure to fans.

Ekaterinburg became a powerhouse because its billionaire owner, Iskander Makhmudov—who is reportedly close to Putin—has spent lavishly to draw top players. In addition to paying them well above what the WNBA pays, his team gives players such perks as chartered flights, personal drivers, and luxury hotel accommodations for away games. But those perks will likely provide little consolation to other American players on the Ekaterinburg team, such as Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones, if Russian authorities send Griner to jail.

Putting aside the criminal allegations against Griner, her case at the very least should create enormous scrutiny around how female athletes are valued in the United States. This is a necessary wake-up call for the WNBA. The league should treat its players better than a team in a hostile country does.