“If the United States treated women’s basketball with the respect it deserves, the WNBA star might not be in legal trouble”. – Jemele Hill (American journalist)
Brittney Griner, who plays center for the Phoenix Mercury, is one of the best WNBA players of all time. Nonetheless, she has currently been detained in Russia, a situation that not only jeopardizes her safety during a major global crisis but also reveals the inferior status of professional women’s basketball in the United States.
Russian state media recently said that Griner is being charged with smuggling drugs after customs officers at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow found vaping equipment and cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage last month. Griner was arrested long after the U.S. intelligence community started warning that Russia was getting ready to invade Ukraine, but before the military operation started. Flying from New York to Russia to continue her stint with one of the country’s top basketball teams, Griner could face up to ten years in prison if convicted.
Griner’s family, her business and legal representatives the WNBA, the NBA and some WNBA players knew about her problems for weeks, but they didn’t talk about them at first because they didn’t want to upset the Russian government. Last weekend, though, Cherelle, the wife of seven-time WNBA all-star Brittney Griner, posted a photo of herself and Griner on Instagram.
Cherelle wrote in the caption,
“I know that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have questions and want more information.” Please respect our privacy while we keep working to make sure my wife gets home safely.”
On Tuesday, Russian state TV showed a picture of Griner standing against a wall in a Russian police station while holding a piece of paper with her name on it.
Griner’s situation is especially bad because she is a Black lesbian who is being held by the government in a country that doesn’t like LGBTQ people. Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia has shown that he supports “traditional values” that he says the West has rejected. Last year, he signed a change to the Constitution that makes gay marriage illegal. The country passed a “gay propaganda” law in 2013 that made it illegal to give information to minors about LGBTQ issues and relationships.
Griner’s choice to play basketball in a country that doesn’t give people a lot of freedom has to do with money. During the off-season, many WNBA stars work in other countries because they can make more money there than in the U.S. It is said that Griner makes more than $1 million to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. This past season her base pay with the Mercury in the WNBA was $221,450.
The best American women’s basketball players wouldn’t want to play in Russia if they could make more money at home and be treated with the same respect as NBA players. Teams in oppressive countries like Russia and China, which are another good market for women’s basketball players, value players like Brittney Griner more than teams in her own country.
According to a recent article in Sports Illustrated, the WNBA fined the New York Liberty $500,000—the highest fine was ever given in women’s professional basketball—for chartering flights for its players, which was against the league’s collective-bargaining agreement.
People thought that if Liberty players took chartered flights they would get more rest and have an unfair advantage over other teams. That didn’t change the idea that the league doesn’t do nearly enough to help its players. Why not force the rest of the WNBA to set a higher standard instead of punishing one team for putting money into its players?
Since the NBA started the WNBA, it has had some responsibility for making it so that WNBA players who want to make the most money must play overseas for a large part of the year. Five of the WNBA’s 12 owners also own NBA teams, so there’s no reason for them to treat their female players like second-class citizens.
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 the best time to talk about the unfair situations that top athletes face. But Griner’s case has become news around the world, and if the Russian government decides to use her as a geopolitical pawn, she could be in a lot of trouble.
If Griner has any influence in Russia at all, it’s because she’s had a great career with Ekaterinburg, the team she’s played for since 2015. Griner has helped the club win four EuroLeague Women’s titles, and the two-time Olympic gold medalist has become a fan favorite as a result.
Ekaterinburg has become a powerhouse because its billionaire owner, Iskander Makhmudov, who is said to be close to Putin, has spent a lot of money to bring in top players. In addition to paying them more than the WNBA does, his team gives them perks like chartered flights, personal drivers and stays in luxury hotels when they play away games. But if the Russian government puts Griner in jail, the other American players on the Ekaterinburg team, like Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones, probably won’t care much about these perks.
Putting aside the criminal charges against Griner, her case should at the very least make a lot of people think about how highly female athletes are valued in the U.S. This is a wake-up call for the WNBA that they need to hear. The league should take better care of its players than a team in an enemy country.
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