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Brittney Griner, one of the most dominant professional basketball players in the world has been detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges after she was accused of having vaping equipment and cannabis oil in her luggage at customs. Griner is a superstar centre in the WNBA, she has two Olympic gold medals, is a seven-time WNBA All-Star and won a championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014.
For those unfamiliar with the state of women’s professional basketball there might be questions about what on earth Griner was doing in Russia in the first place. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to instability in the region, it’s not necessarily a safe place to be travelling to.
Brittney Griner was in Russia because that’s where she goes every year during the WNBA offseason. Playing for Ekaterinburg in the EuroLeague gives her the opportunity to make nearly four times her annual WNBA salary. It’s the reality for most WNBA players that once the WNBA season concludes, they’ll head overseas to make real money.
Ostensibly, Griner was on her way to work when she was detained on charges of drug smuggling about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Some have theorized that these two things are connected, that because Russian authorities knew to expect Griner’s arrival, they planned to detain her in order to have some kind of leverage over the United States following the invasion.
Whether that is true or not, the soured diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States makes this situation a lot more difficult for Griner and everybody who’s trying to get her home.
There has been a chorus of well meaning people calling for elected officials to do something about this, many saying that if an NBA player had been detained in Russia, it would be a top news story. “Imagine if Tom Brady had been held in Russia for three weeks,” is a “what-if” that has frequently appeared on social media timelines.
What these (again, well meaning) folks miss is that an NBA player or Tom Brady would have no reason to be in Russia in the first place, they make more than enough money playing in one league and get to spend the offseason training.
There’s also the matter that Griner is a fairly high profile athlete, and there is concern that she may be used as a pawn. By campaigning for her release, some officials have said, Griner would gain value in the eyes of Russian authorities. Handling her detention as a criminal case rather than a political one is important for her safety.
Griner and other WNBA players have enjoyed their time playing overseas, not just because they have the potential to sign million dollar contracts, but because they have been treated well by their teams.
It might seem counterintuitive, that Brittney Griner, a 6’9”, openly gay, Black woman who’s politically outspoken would want to play in a conservative country like Russia that suppresses personal freedoms, but there’s an unspoken agreement among EuroLeague owners that American players will generally be allowed to live their lives without interference. While this is purely speculative, it’s possible that that unspoken agreement included vaping cannabis on a player’s own time.
Playing overseas has given WNBA players the opportunity to make a lot of money, but that’s not the only reason that the allure of playing in Russia remains. It’s a fair question on the surface, to ask why Griner would opt to play in Russia when so many of the country’s laws go against her well documented views. For WNBA stars, it’s an economic decision; they don’t go to take a stand, they go to play basketball.
Griner’s situation is complicated and some have dubbed it a cautionary tale for Americans doing business in Russia. The unspoken agreements that once protected them no longer apply.
But beyond the current situation with Russia, Griner’s arrest also shows us just how messed up the state of professional women’s sport is in North America. If the WNBA had stronger infrastructure, if the players were better compensated and taken care of, would she have been in Russia in the first place? I highly doubt it.