Brittney Griner Arrested in Russia, WNBA Needs to Protect its Players


Courtesy of Getty Images

Brittney Griner, one of the most recognizable players in women’s basketball, plays against New York Liberty.

WNBA Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was apprehended in Russia this past month and faces drug-smuggling charges for the possession of vape and “hashish” products. The arrest comes at a tumultuous time, threatening Griner’s safety as the war continues between Russia and Ukraine. Griner, a queer Black athlete, travels to Russia every year to play basketball during the WNBA’s offseason, but currently faces major concerns about her well-being due to Russia’s antagonistic views toward the LGBTQ+ community. Griner’s decision to play in a country that oppresses LGBTQ+ people may perplex some, but it simply comes down to the fact that the WNBA has severely underpaid her.

In Russia, Griner makes about five times more than what she makes in a season for the WNBA. Last season, her base salary on the Mercury was only a little over $220,000. On the other hand, UMMC Ekaterinburg, Griner’s team in Russia, pays her over $1 million. Naturally, it makes sense that she would travel to and play in Russia during the off-season of the WNBA, but she shouldn’t have to fly across the world to get paid what she deserves.

Griner’s salary in the U.S. is more than enough to live off of. But for a professional athlete at the top of her field, $200,000 is nothing. For context, Stephen Curry is currently the highest-paid athlete in the NBA, earning $45.8 million this season. That’s 204 times more than Griner’s salary. 

Last year, Griner earned the honorable distinction of being one of the best athletes in the league. She is considered the “apex of her sport.” Similar to Curry, she is the best of the best and a living legend, but she is not nearly as respected by the WNBA as Curry is by the NBA, and, as a consequence, she has been taken advantage of.

“She was second in scoring, sixth in rebounds, first in blocks (she’s on track to become the WNBA’s all-time leader in that category), and, according to most advanced metrics, the best offensive player in the league,” New York Magazine wrote.

In college, Griner won an NCAA national championship for Baylor University in 2012 and was college basketball’s player of the year. After her impressive college career, she went on to the WNBA and had huge success.

“She then won a WNBA championship in 2014 and was selected as one of the best 25 players in league history in 2021,” NYMag wrote. “She has two Olympic gold medals to her name. In the gold-medal game against Japan in Tokyo last summer, she dominated, scoring 30 points to clinch an easy victory.”

Griner isn’t the only WNBA player who has traveled to Russia to augment her salary. In 2015, WNBA player Diana Taurasi was paid $1.5 million by UMMC Ekaterinburg so that she could sit out the WNBA season and be well-rested for the Russian season. Taurasi says that it felt “backwards” having to “go to a ‘communist’ country to get paid like capitalists.”

This is Griner’s seventh season in Russia, which is probably the only leverage she has going for her in the country right now. The billionaire owner of UMMC Ekaterinburg, Iskander Makhmudov, is reportedly close to Putin, which could help her case. In addition, throughout her remarkable career with the Ekaterinburg team — which she has played for since 2014 — Griner has helped the club win four EuroLeague Women’s championships and has quickly become idolized by fans. However, if she can be classified as a ‘hostage,’ Griner will join more than 50 American citizens who are currently held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas. 

Despite her arrest, which is believed to have happened in February, news of Griner’s predicament didn’t arrive in the U.S. until March 5, when Russia revealed that they were holding her. Soon after, Griner’s wife posted about the situation on Instagram. 

“There are no words to express this pain,” she wrote. “I’m hurting, we’re hurting.”

Since then, campaigners have been working to free Griner. As a legend of the WNBA, it’s shocking that Griner’s team and the league have only issued brief statements. As one of the most powerful sports leagues in the country, which has prided itself in being involved in numerous social justice campaigns, they should be doing so much more. Leagues have the responsibility of protecting their athletes before, and it’s extremely disappointing to see the WNBA take such a small role in trying to help one of their most prominent athletes.

One reason the case may have been swept under the rug by the WNBA is due to the sensitivity between Russian and American officials during the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Griner’s wife specifically asked for privacy on Instagram. However, another likely motive for the league’s silence is that they are directly to blame for Griner being in Russia in the first place. If the league paid its stars the way other sports leagues do, like the NBA, Griner likely would have just stayed in the U.S.

This tragedy sheds light on how female athletes are undervalued in the United States. If women’s sports were more respected in the U.S., then these athletes wouldn’t have to travel around the world to get paid the amount of money they deserve. Now more than ever, there is a demand to pay female athletes the proper salary. American sports need to wake up and demand changes from the WNBA. There is absolutely no reason a country with such homophobic laws like Russia should treat an LGBTQ+ basketball player better than the WNBA does.