As the 26th WNBA season begins on Friday, there’s a familiar — and dominant — face missing from action. She’s not in uniform this year, yet Brittney Griner is impossible to miss.
The 6-foot-9, 31-year-old center for the Phoenix Mercury, one of the most gifted and graceful athletes of her generation, awaits trial on drug charges in Russia. Meanwhile, her league has pledged to keep her at the forefront of its mind: Griner’s initials and her No. 42 jersey will be on the sideline of every WNBA court this season, and her charity, BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, will continue its work in Phoenix and beyond.
It’s a thoughtful way to recognize Griner, who was arrested in mid-February on her way back to Russia to resume play with UMMC Yekaterinburg, the team she’s played with for the last seven years. Accused of carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil in her bag, Griner has been stuck ever since, with the U.S. government this week reclassifying her case as “wrongfully detained.” Her next trial date is set for May 19.
But there’s another, better and considerably more meaningful way that all WNBA players can pay tribute to Griner. Starting now, they can vow to no longer play in authoritarian countries in the offseason. Because that is how we got here in the first place.
WNBA players are known for being passionately outspoken and active when it comes to social justice issues – shouldn’t that extend to other countries?
“We’ve been going over there with our blinders on,” said Mike Cound, a longtime agent who represents dozens of WNBA and professional players. “I’m just as guilty as (any other agent). We’ve all been sending people over there knowing who Putin is. We keep sending players because the money has been so good and Putin was just masking the monster that he is. It’s an ethical dilemma, a gray area.”
For more than a decade, much of the best overseas money in women’s basketball has been made in authoritarian countries, including Russia, China and Turkey.
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It’s not just WNBA players and agents (and media and fans) who were complicit in giving Putin & Co. a pass. Why would anyone be concerned about human rights abuses when the International Olympic Committee awarded some of those countries the Games?
But I have higher expectations of WNBA players. You should, too. This is an exceptional group of women who repeatedly have taken a stand and forced everyone else to follow. Leading isn’t out of the ordinary for them — it’s what they do best.
After all, these are the women who flipped a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, which ultimately delivered a Senate that ushered in the first-ever Black woman Supreme Court justice. They stood up to a racist owner and demonstrated their support for Black Lives Matter in 2016, before BLM protests caught on with the rest of America’s professional sports leagues.
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Time to take a stand
Playing in unsafe countries is nothing new for WNBA players. Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes, who played overseas for more than a decade, recalled when she played in Russia.
“There weren’t taxis, so you would flag down a car and pay a random car to get you to the gym,” Barnes said. “I didn’t know how to call the police, because I couldn’t read the signs. Now I would never do that. I can’t believe I used to do that. It was so dangerous.”
As usual, it comes down to money. Overseas, players can command as much as $1 million per season. At home, the maximum salary in the WNBA this season is $228,000; the average NBA salary is $7.3 million. That means the worst players in the NBA make roughly 32 times what the best players in the WNBA make. It’s astonishing and infuriating.
But given the fact that so many women’s players and agents have turned a blind eye to the horrific human rights violations taking place in certain corners of the world and willingly packed their bags for those countries, aren’t women also at least somewhat guilty of simply chasing big money?
It’s natural for WNBA players to want to earn life-changing money, like hundreds of male athletes have done in the U.S. and elsewhere, for decades. I get it.
But everything has a cost, and right now, we have an opportunity to weigh what is and isn’t worth it. Should we really be sending players to countries where human rights are an afterthought?
“I’ve gotta be honest with you, I don’t know,” said Kelsey Plum, the 2021 Sixth Woman of the Year who spent this offseason in Turkey. “Time will give us the answer. I think it’s so up in the air right now. (There are) so many variables that go into a decision about playing overseas. Everyone should have a right to make the decision that’s best for them.”
Players don’t just go for money. The WNBA season is short, only four months, and they need skill development opportunities and game experience, especially younger players adjusting to the pros. We need to talk about how to make the season longer and get players more games, which will in turn give the league a better and longer chance to build fan support.
Griner’s situation, which is hopefully resolved soon, opens the door for reflection. It can be a time for everyone furious that she was there in the first place to look the mirror and ask how much time, effort and money they’re investing in growing women’s sports.
It’s an opportunity for the media to evaluate how much it’s covering women’s sports. Griner was worthy of coverage long before she got locked up in a Russian prison. She is tremendously talented, one of the best athletes in the world. She’s also deeply kind and caring. I think often of Holly Rowe’s ESPN story from the 2020 bubble season, when she shined a light on another side of Griner, detailing how the WNBA All-Star, an avid outdoorswoman, saved the life of a man injured in a severe ATV accident.
But mostly, Griner’s predicament is an opportunity for WNBA players to lead, stand up to Putin and his cronies and other wanna-be dictators like him, and say, enough.
It’s an opportunity for players to say yes, money matters — but human rights matter more.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia: WNBA must evaluate priorities