Infuriating. Disturbing. Helpless. These are a few of the feelings conjured thinking about the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner, seeing pictures of her handcuffed in a Russian courtroom on Friday, the outset of her trial on dubious drug charges.
One of the queens of American women’s basketball is a geopolitical pawn in frosty relations between the United States and Russia. It’s unnecessary for reasons beyond the perversion of justice in Vladimir Putin’s Stygian state.
Griner could be on a WNBA court instead of in a foreign power’s kangaroo one if the wage gap between women’s basketball players and their male counterparts wasn’t as wide as the political divide in America The Polarized. That pay gap is why Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time WNBA scoring champion, was in Russia in the first place.
She was traveling back to her well-heeled Russian team when she was detained Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport and declared to have vape pens containing hashish oil in her luggage, setting off this saga.
Griner was making $1 million-$1.5 million playing for oligarch-funded UMMC Ekaterinburg, a superpower that has long shelled out top dollar for the world’s best women’s players. The WNBA’s paltry pay pushed Griner into Russian crosshairs.
No one has the expectation that WNBA players make the same as their NBA counterparts. The revenue disparity would never support that. But sports and leagues offer value beyond their balance sheets, especially when they symbolize opportunity and equality. If we say we value those as a society, then we need to demand more of the NBA relative to the WNBA.
The worth of every entity can’t be measured solely in money. The value of the WNBA goes beyond crunching numbers, and so should the NBA’s investment in it. You can’t put a price on the dreams of millions of girls or a woman’s freedom.
While Griner’s safety and freedom are the paramount concerns, her ordeal has cast a light on the plight of women’s professional basketball players. WNBA players are compelled to play in foreign countries to maximize their worth. They can’t bank on money from the league.
The WNBA salary cap is $1.4 million per team. The minimum salary for an NBA player with one year of experience is a projected $1.637 million. A WNBA supermax contact is $228,094 per season. The league minimum is around $60,000, or what an NBA player would leave in the glove box of his Bentley.
There are marketing agreements, award bonuses, and the Commissioner’s Cup competition that can push compensation higher — north of $600,000 in a perfect scenario — but it’s not enough to turn down the seven-figure money big-time female ballers can make overseas.
There’s a cash chasm between the NBA and WNBA. Two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokić just agreed to the most lucrative contract in NBA history, a five-year $270 million supermax extension, taking his pay over the next six seasons to $303 million.
The NBA is a nearly $9 billion business. You can’t persuade me the league can’t afford to spend more money to sustain and subsidize the WNBA given what it stands for 50 years after Title IX?
It doesn’t take economist Adam Smith to understand the leagues are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum from a supply and demand standpoint. The WNBA doesn’t turn a profit.
If turning a profit were the only goal, then why did the NBA launch the WNBA in the first place? Since the league’s inception in 1996 seven women’s pro sports leagues have folded, so the NBA is clearly doing something right.
Reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun was a teammate of Griner’s for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which was banned from the EuroLeague Women after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Jones told ESPN that in a month she earned what she makes the entire season in the WNBA. The pay difference is so stark that UMMC Ekaterinburg once paid UConn women’s basketball legend Diana Taurasi to skip the 2015 WNBA season, which runs during the summer, entirely.
Griner’s cause has been ubiquitous in the WNBA with her initials and jersey number — BG42 — on all 12 teams’ courts and players demanding her release while pressuring President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to make it happen.
But they’ve also highlighted the wage gap that compelled an openly gay, Black American woman to seek work in a country that isn’t remotely tolerant of those cultures.
The Associated Press quoted WNBA Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” saying:
“She’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity.”
WNBA players have complained about things such as having to pay for their own upgrades on commercial flights. Some WNBA owners are willing to raise the bar when it comes to amenities such as charter flights, but others have resisted any increased spending. The New York Liberty were fined $500,000 by the league last season for chartering flights.
The WNBA is owned by the 30 NBA team owners and the 12 WNBA team owners with ownership split 50/50. In February, the league conducted a capital raise, getting $75 million from investors who purchased a stake in the league. (Boston Globe Media CEO Linda Henry was listed among the investors.)
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert is focused on raising the league’s profile and cash flow, but she has a tough task without greater financial support from the NBA.
The most socially conscious of the major sports leagues needs to put more of its money where its mouth is on gender equity.
Next year, the WNBA will fine players if they miss the start of training camp or show up after May 1, whichever is later. In 2024, players can be suspended for the season. Currently, it’s routine for players to arrive late after finishing up lucrative overseas contracts.
If the WNBA wants its players to prioritize the league, then the league has to prioritize its players.
Unfortunately, the NBA and the WNBA can’t control the outcome of Griner’s case. They can’t improve her conditions in Russia.
But they can use her ordeal to inspire improved WNBA working conditions and a venue for women’s basketball that is the worthy of the world-class athletes on the court.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.