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  • Ogenna Oraedu

WNBA All-Star Britney Griner Detained in Russia

Along with their invasion of Ukraine, the United States has another reason to keep an eye on Russia: Brittney Griner.

Source: Brian Snyder/Reuters

The 31-year-old WNBA player was detained on February 17 after vape cartridges containing hashish oil were found in her luggage while going through security at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow.

Like many of its surrounding countries, cannabis is illegal in Russia. 6 grams or less is considered an administrative offense, which is enough for a fine or 15 days of detention. Possession of more than 6 grams of the drug is processed as a criminal offense. Griner’s hearing is set for May 19, meaning she will be in Russian custody for about three months.

Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and is a three-time All-American and a seven-time WNBA All-Star. The player took home the gold medal at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics with the U.S. Women’s Basketball team and is the only NCAA player, man or woman, to block over 700 shots,. She is also the second-highest WNBA scorer of all time with an impressive 3,203 career points.

These domestic achievements are only one part of her international career. Griner plays in the Russia Premier League during the off-season. If Griner had not been detained, she would have been all set to play another season with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team based in Yekaterinburg.

In this coming off-season, about 70 WNBA players are planning on playing for international teams to supplement their income. In 2021, the average salary of a WNBA player was $120,648. Meanwhile, the minimum salary for an NBA player was $898,310, which is four times greater than what the highest earners in women’s basketball make. Like Griner, many female athletes decide to spend their off-season with a foreign team to earn extra income. Regardless of the sport, women are historically underpaid and under-promoted compared to their male counterparts. And they have been fighting for change for years.

The U.S. national women’s soccer team has won four FIFA Women’s World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups. Meanwhile, the U.S. national men’s soccer team has won seven Gold Cups, and has just secured a spot in the FIFA World Cup for the first time in five years. In its history, the U.S. national men’s soccer team has never won a World Cup title. After the women's national team won the 2019 World Cup, they received a total of $4 million in prize money. The men’s team earned $9 million in the 2014 tournament, despite only reaching the Round of 16 and placing 15th overall.

Players on the women’s national team have been fighting for equal pay since 2016, when a federal equal-pay complaint was filed by Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn, five starters for the team at the time. On February 22, 2022, a proposed settlement between the team and the U.S. Soccer Federation was reached, with U.S. Soccer agreeing to pay a lump sum of $22 million in back pay to the players.

WNBA players also had a recent win of their own. The collective bargaining agreement signed in 202o by the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, the union for the league’s players, promises to pay the players the six-figure salary they deserve. In 2019, the maximum salary a player could earn was $117,500. Although the agreement was a major step in the fight for equal pay, it does not mean that Brittney Griner no longer needs to travel abroad in order to make as much as NBA players do once she is out of Russian custody. Her return to American soil remains more of a mystery than a certainty.

It was not until March 23 that a U.S. official was granted consular access to Griner, more than three weeks into her detention. Even after her release, there is still the question of how to get her home. President Joe Biden’s crippling sanctions against Russia and his deployment of 7,000 troops to Europe (although they have been placed without the intention of seeing any combat) show the extent of America's involvement with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Russia is slowly withdrawing troops from the areas around Kyiv, the possibility for re-escalation and Ukrainian retaliation is always possible.

The details of the negotiations with Russia on Griner’s behalf have been kept under wraps, to the point where all the general public knows is that she is in “good condition.” Lisa Leslie, a former WNBA player, revealed that other players and those close to her were told to stay quiet about the situation in order to avoid Griner being used “as a pawn” by Russia.

With the end of the war in Ukraine far from certain, the United States continues to grapple with its deep entanglement in the conflict. The result of unequal pay in sports has given them yet another task on their ever-growing list of things to do throughout the invasion, sandwiched right between “impose sanctions” and “deploy troops”: bring Brittney Griner home.


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