OPINION: Brittney Griner should never have been in Russia

Brittney Griner shouldn’t have been in Russia. 

Before we consider her unknown whereabouts after she was transferred to a Russian penal colony or the fact that she has been wrongfully detained for nearly 300 days, let’s start with that simple fact. Griner shouldn’t have been there. 

Drafted first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA Draft, Griner is one of the league’s brightest stars and quite possibly the most recognizable. The 6-9 center is a WNBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time defensive player of the year and a seven-time All-Star. 

Last Friday, Griner’s transfer to the penal colony began, but her attorneys and U.S. officials weren’t made aware until Tuesday according to reports. Her exact location may not be available for weeks, Griner’s lawyers said. 

“The President has directed the administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. 

Griner, a four-time Euroleague Champion on Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, has been detained since February when customs officials searched her luggage and found two vape cartridges with trace amounts of hashish oil, which is banned in Russia. Griner, who had a cannabis prescription to battle chronic pain, explained it was an oversight. She was convicted in August of trying to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia. In October her nine-year sentence was upheld by an appeals court. 

Again, Griner never should have been there. 

Critics of the WNBA, a league comprised primarily by Black women which is nearing its 27th season, like to poke holes in the value of the league by comparing it to the billion-dollar business that is the NBA. What they fail to take into consideration is how differently the two leagues and their athletes have been invested in. Look no further than endorsement opportunities for the first overall draft pick in both leagues. 

In April, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas detailed the pay inequity that led to Griner’s decision to pursue overseas opportunities. The max base salary in the WNBA is close to $230,000, but in Russia, top athletes like Griner were making seven-figure salaries playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg. 

The greatest women’s basketball players aren’t playing year-round, taking as little as a week to two weeks off between the WNBA season and their season overseas, strictly for the love of the game. They’re playing to make up for lost revenue because of low salaries in the United States. 

Candace Parker, who played for UMMC Ekaterinburg from 2010 to 2015, said it was the lucrative overseas contracts that she signed throughout her career that allowed her to afford private education for her kids and her home in Los Angeles. Parker hasn’t played overseas since 2018.  

According to Forbes, Parker’s endorsement earnings were $5.5 million last year. By comparison, Derrick Rose’s last reported endorsement figure was $13 million in 2017. 

Rose was taken with the first overall pick by the Bulls the same year Parker was taken first by the Sparks. 

Parker is a two-time WNBA champion, seven-time All-Star, two-time league MVP, Rookie of the Year, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion. Rose was named Rookie of the Year, league MVP and is a three-time All-Star. 

For the critics who will undoubtedly bemoan the trajectory Rose was on before injuries, he still earned more in endorsements than Parker despite never reaching the heights he was expected to. Parker meanwhile became one of the most decorated athletes in professional basketball history. 

“We stand with Brittney Griner and will continue to call on all Americans and the global sports community to do the same with even more vigilance,” The Women’s National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “We are crushed that this scary, seemingly never-ending nightmare continues. The lack of clarity and transparency in the process compounds the pain.”

Russian officials have indicated that sincere negotiations regarding a prisoner swap could not begin until the legal process had been fully carried out. Griner’s transfer to a penal colony was the final step in that process. 

While the league and those close to Griner wait in anguish for an update on her condition and whereabouts, the fact remains that she never should have been in Russia. 

If our country valued women more, she wouldn’t have been. 

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