Updated March 8, 2022 at 10:03 a.m.
Today is international Women’s Day, and Brittney Griner, one of the top female athletes on earth, sits in a Russian jail cell, her fate subject to international diplomacy and the justice system in a country run by a murderous dictator. She should’ve never been there.
Russia dropped over the weekend that it has had Griner locked up–possibly since sometime last month–on charges that she had a vape pen with hashish oil in her luggage. She could face a decade or longer in a Russian prison. There are obvious reasons, broken down in this thread from former ESPN anchor Adrienne Lawrence, to distrust Russia’s explanation that it just happened upon a stash in the carry-on of a 6-foot-7 Black woman basketball star just as it was about to start an international conflict.
We already knew Vladamir Putin was a homicidal liar, a wanna-be second coming of Stalin presiding over both an illegal invasion and the economic collapse of his own nation. It’d be no shock that he sicced his goons on Griner for leverage against the economic sanctions now leveled on him and his wealthy friends. But blame for Griner’s predicament is owed as much to continued, despicable pay disparities between men and women –in sports and otherwise–as it is to Putin’s lunacy.
The New York Times reports that 70 players–almost half of the WNBA–play overseas during the offseason. And while it’s not always about money, that’s a big motivator. WNBA superstars make about as much as mid-level marketing VPs in corporate America. At best, their careers afford them a comfortable living for as long as they can play, but they’re not set for life.
At 31, Griner’s current contract has her pulling down $664,544 over three years. She’s the Phoenix Mercury’s highest-paid player, and has the eighth-highest average annual salary in the WNBA, according to SportTrac. The WNBA’s highest-paid player, Seattle Storm guard Jewell Lloyd, will make $228,094 this year.
By comparison, the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, 29, has the same number of NBA All-Star nods (seven) as Griner’s WNBA All-Star appearances, the same number of championships (one) and one fewer Olympic medal. He’s under contract for about $33.5 million this season (though he won’t make nearly that much because of the number of games missed due to his vaccination status).
Whether Griner was motivated by cash is unknown, but she definitely didn’t need to go to keep in shape. She’s one of the most dominant players in WNBA history, with seven All-Star selections, two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA chip on her resume. The former number-one pick out of Baylor averages almost 18 and 8 for her career. She can handle the ball, move off of it and has range and game on defense.
No NBA player–or man in any American team sport at Griner’s level–would risk playing overseas in the prime of their careers for a few extra bucks. There’s the NBA Summer League in Vegas, streetball tournaments like New York’s famed Rucker Park and international competition with Team USA or their home countries, but those are all about keeping skills sharp or adding to their trophy cases, not supplemental income.
But WNBA budgets are so tight that the New York Liberty–the team in the league’s biggest market–was just fined $500,000 for violating the league’s union contract by charting a plane for games. Imagine asking LeBron James to fold his legs up in coach or Jeanie Buss having to hide a charter flight to a Lakers-Knicks game from the NBA.
The uneven pay and treatment mirrors that for women in other sports and beyond; the US Women’s National Team players just settled a pay disparity lawsuit with the U.S. Soccer Federation for $24 million.
If you’re thinking right now that making six figured to play basketball and worrying about whether you fly commercial or private to games sounds like a good problem, consider that someone you know—or maybe you—is probably on the wrong side of the gender pay gap in their own profession. On average, women in the U.S. still only make 82 cents for every dollar men earn, and the country ranks 30th in the world in terms of economic parity for women, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Report.
The gap translates to food off the table for everyday moms and families. It means hard choices—or having no choice at all—about living conditions, work schedules and childcare. It robs women of economic mobility and personal agency.
And for basketball stars, it just might mean the difference between a calm offseason and being at the possibility of a decade in Russian prison.