Basketball star Brittney Griner only played in Russia due to gender pay gap: ‘It’s a sad situation’

Brittney Griner wears white t-shirt as she is led out in handcuffs to a trial hearing in Russia

Basketball superstar Brittney Griner was only playing in Russia because of the low wages paid to female athletes in the US, according to teammates.

Griner is currently on trial in Russia on drug smuggling charges after being arrested at a Moscow airport in February. Russian authorities have claimed the two-time Olympic gold medallist was found in possession of vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. 

She faces up to 10 years in jail if she is convicted. Her lawyer has said he expects Griner’s trial could go on for months

A former Pentagon official raised concerns earlier this year that the seven-time WNBA All-Star could be used as a “high profile hostage” during the ongoing war in Ukraine. But Griner’s loved ones and colleagues back believed she was forced to play in Russia because of the gender pay gap in US basketball. 

Terri Jackson, the executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, told the Independent that Griner wouldn’t have had to play abroad if the “pay deals were different” and if “investors were actively seeking promoters”.

Jackson explained Griner consulted with her wife before heading off to play in Russia, and she said they hoped this would be her last season playing for a Russian team.

“When the season in the US ends, there is barely a week before our players are off to Poland or to Israel or to Australia,” Jackson said. 

Jackson added the WNBA is proud to send players abroad to be global ambassadors for women’s basketball, but she feared that constantly playing to earn enough money to survive could take its toll on players’ bodies. 

“Like all professional athletes, there is only a limited window,” she said. 

So Jackson believed the organisation needed to “rethink and reimagine women’s basketball” for players to thrive.

Brittney Griner wears a purple basketball jersey with the number 42 written in white as she holds a white and orange basketball in her hands

Brittney Griner, like other WNBA players, played for basketball teams overseas during the offseason. (Getty/Leon Bennett)

Griner has played the last seven WNBA offseasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia where big-name players can earn more than $1m a year, NBC News reported. In contrast, the maximum base salary in the WNBA is $228,000 a year – with the minimum being $60,000 – under a collective bargaining agreement that was signed in 2020 and extends through to 2027.

The WNBA said in 2020 that players could earn up to $500,000 in a season with bonuses, tournament play and marketing deals added to their base salary.

The average male player in the NBA earned $5.3 million for performing in the 2021-2022 season, according to data from Basketball Reference

Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan, said it’s a “sad situation” that professional women basketball players like Brittney Griner feel they can’t pass up the opportunity to go overseas to earn more money. 

“The amount of money that athletes can make throughout other parts of the world is incredible and almost a no-brainer depending on how good you are and your overall market appeal,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong added that foreign countries “treat their athletes well” so there is a “level of protection” professional female athletes have “when in other countries”. 

“I can see why after going to a place repeatedly over a period of years, you could feel a sense of safety and maybe even invincibility,” Armstrong said. 

“That feeling of being home away from home gives them comfort, and so they don’t have that same level of fear that the average person may have when they think about being in a country abroad.”

Brittney Griner wears a white shirt over a purple basketball jersey with her hair styled in locks

Brittney Griner’s wife says the WNBA All-Star is “terrified” as she remains detained in Russia. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty)

Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has said the WNBA player is “terrified” and “struggling” every day that she remains in custody in Russia. Cherelle told Rev Al Sharpton that she has only been able to communicate with her wife through letters, in which Griner has been putting up a brave front. 

“She’s like, ‘I’m OK, babe. I’m hardened. I’m not me right now. When I come home, it’s going to take me a minute to get back to myself, but I’m holding on. I won’t break until I come home. I won’t let them break me. I know they are trying to, but I’m going to do my best to just hold on until I can get home.’”

But, she added: “Every second that goes by, BG [Brittney Griner] is struggling – she is a human. She’s struggling. She’s there, terrified. She’s there, alone.”

The WNBA has continued to advocate for Griner’s safe return home and even named her an honorary All-Star starter

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Brittney Griner has been selected as an All-Star during each season of her career “in which there has been an All-Star game”. 

“It is not difficult to imagine that if BG were here with us this season, she would once again be selected and would, no doubt, show off her incredible talents,” Engelbert explained. 

“So it is only fitting that she be named as an honorary starter today, and we continue to work on her safe return to the US.”