The response to the WNBA star's imprisonment in Russia mirrors how American society decides who is valuable—and who isn’t.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: After 294 days in Russian captivity—including time spent in one of Russia’s infamously horrific penal colonies this past month—WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was freed today, December 8, 2022. The Biden administration negotiated her release and return from Russia. Biden arranged to exchange Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout. According to a senior administration official, the trade took place in the United Arab Emirates. The basketball player is being flown to a San Antonio, TX, medical facility where she will be receiving care.
On March 5, the world learned that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been detained by Russian authorities when vape cartridges containing hashish oil were found in her luggage. At first, there was very little public outrage, even when it was revealed she had been behind bars since February 17. But thanks to WNBA members who pushed for more outrage of Griner’s detainment, as Griner’s trial began five months later, #FreeBG, #FreeBrittneyGriner and #WeAreBG have all become trending hashtags on social media. They’re words printed on t-shirts, jackets, and lapel pins, painted across the sides of tennis shoes and on poster boards held in stadiums. Griner’s initials and jersey number, 42, are featured along the sideline of all 12 WNBA courts.
The slow-in-coming outcry over Griner’s detention, however, makes us question the importance and relevance society places on traditionally marginalized communities—those excluded from mainstream social, economic, educational and/or cultural life for reasons due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and more. As a Black, openly gay American woman, the 31-year-old Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, certainly represents several traditionally marginalized groups, as does, frankly, all of the WNBA. Per OnLabor, 100 percent of the WNBA Players Association members are female; 83 percent of WNBPA members are persons of color; and 67 percent are Black or African American. While exact numbers are unknown, a large number of WNBPA player-members identify as LGBTQ+ including Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, Courtney Vandersloot, and Natasha Howard.
Yet Griner is arguably one of the league’s most famous players, an internationally recognized athlete who has won multiple Olympic Gold medals, a WNBA championship, and more. If those accolades were enough—honors that are similarly held by famous NBA players, such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant—surely there would be nationwide outrage over her detainment.
But there wasn’t. Not really.
The muted response to Griner’s detainment reveals the larger social dynamics at play: American society undervalues its women, its Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and it’s marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+. Even globally renowned female athletes of the highest caliber cannot escape the limitations we place on the worth of women. In reality, the sidelining of Griner’s story and the lack of initial interest mimics the way these groups are similarly sidelined in everyday life. The response exposes the society we have become: one with little tolerance for or interest in issues concerning women and other marginalized groups.
Yet the women of the WNBA are charging forward in spite of the disrespect, disparities, and disinvestment. As members of the very communities most under threat in the U.S., they are using their platform as athletes to move their plays from the court to Congress, pushing for progress in fair voting legislation, unequal pay, and reproductive rights. They are rising in unison, making their voices heard and using their public platforms to take bold steps in making this a better world not just for themselves, but for everyone.
“Twelve WNBA teams spread out across the country, with 144 players, is a lot of outreach and presence that can bring necessary attention to many causes,” said Griner’s Mercury teammate Brianna Turner. “Women in general, not just the WNBA players, are undervalued. I think the W has made a lot of progress. We are one of the most diverse and open leagues. We don’t really care if people agree. What we are saying through our platforms is [that we stand] for human rights.”
Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks who, as president of the league’s Player’s Association, is responsible for representing the views of the players to society at large, says the sisterhood of the W aids in the united front they present as they use their platform to address societal issues.
“We represent one of the most marginalized portions of our country, and so we have to be loud, we have to let people hear us, and we have to do it together,” said Ogwumike. “We would be doing a disservice if we weren’t using [our platforms] to really make things better.”
The Pay Problem
Unfortunately, it has routinely been hard for anyone, let alone young girls, to see these women play basketball. Unlike the NBA, WNBA games are not ubiquitous during the season. Games are spread throughout Facebook, WNBA Twitter, an occasional appearance on ESPN2, CBS network, and during the Finals, ABC. But that’s about it, and it causes frustration among fans and the players themselves. So much so that Ogumwike commented after a recent game in Dallas: “I wish it weren’t so damn hard to find our games.”
True influence and power come from money. Simply, the lack of monetary investment in the WNBA translates to less visibility on television and less visibility for a league that needs to be seen to grow in its fan base, viewership, investment deals, and more. There’s an assumption that no one cares or watches women’s sports. This is largely due to the fewer number of games played in most professional women sports, less media coverage of women’s sports and a general, mostly societal bias aired on social media sites that women athletes are not as talented as male athletes, and therefore, their sport is not as exciting to watch. It’s an assumption that is hurting the league and its players.
But change is slowly coming. Earlier this year, league officials announced it had raised $75 million from new investors and existing WNBA and NBA owners as part of a financial growth strategy designed to generate new revenue. It’s a great start, but disparities still exist when it comes to paying the players.
The pay gap between WNBA and NBA players is alarming: The average NBA base salary this season is about $5.4 million, compared with about $130,000 for the WNBA, per Basketball Reference and WNBA.com. Top performing players, of course, earn more, but even the WNBA’s top performers like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi earn just over $200,000. It’s the main reason why Griner, and a large majority of WNBA players, go overseas every year to play.
These numbers are actually worse than the pay-gap averages in the United States. According to the U.S. Census, in 2020, U.S. women annually earned just under 83 percent of what men earned, while women of color fared worse, earning just 64 cents for every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men.
Various factors come into play for that discrepancy to exist, including the number of games played (36 games in the WNBA versus 82 in the NBA), larger and more lucrative television and sponsorship deals in the NBA, and more revenue generated from the NBA, which results in more money for NBA players that have a 50-50 split in revenues agreement with their league.
WNBA players have continued to fight for a bigger share of league revenues. The last WNBA collective bargaining agreement agreed upon called for a 50-50 split if the league achieved growth in certain areas. Per Her Hoop Stats, the last agreement has the minimum base salaries in the WNBA for those with less than two years in the league at $60,471, while those with three-plus make at least $72,141. “The fact that we make less money playing professionally here and we have to go overseas and now we see the situation with BG, all of these things are very unique to us unfortunately,” said the Washington Mystics’ Elizabeth Williams. “So of course we are going to speak up about them.”
During her remarks before last month’s WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league continues to “work really hard on the transformation of the business in order to improve the player experience”. She announced new initiatives including chartered flights for players during WNBA Finals games, (WNBA players typically fly commercial, unlike NBA players who often travel by private plane), and increasing the postseason bonus pools to a half million dollars, almost doubling the bonus for each player who wins the championship. “We’re just trying to chip away [at it],” Engelbert concluded.
Other initiatives Engelbert unveiled included efforts to “double down on player marketing agreements” by spending about $1.5 million this year to help players grow their personal brand and elevate marketing. This is a result of seeing what she called “tremendous interest in the game, evidenced by viewership, and everything from the draft and more.” Additionally, beginning next season, the league will begin playing 40 games which will help with viewership and therefore, financial compensation. All of these initiatives are a good start, but many disparities still remain compared to their male counterparts.
These increases in investment expand the progressive platform so many WNBA players stand for.
“The women of the WNBA are very intelligent, very community-oriented,” said Natalie Wiliams, general manager of the Las Vegas Aces and former WNBA player (Utah Starzz and Indiana Fever). “You’ve got players saying when they retire they want to go into politics. They are just in tune with what is going on in the country.”
One team that is helping the country by fully embracing its power and creating a culture of activism is the Washington Mystics, where players like Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkis, Alysha Clark, and Elizabeth Williams are outspoken and active in the community. In 2020, they were the first team in the “Covid Bubble” to suggest not playing due to the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd- and are known for wearing clothing and pre-game warm-up gear emblazoned with slogans.
“Being in a place like D.C., you are surrounded by the place where laws are made, changes happen, and there’s a culture of types of players who come here,” said Elizabeth Williams, who is also secretary for the Player’s Association. “We just have a mix of people that understand the influence we have, and t being willing to take action with it..”
Being a “voice to the voiceless” is a strength of the WNBA, says the Las Vega Aces’ A’ja Wilson, a member of the league’s Social Justice Committee.
“We have been at the forefront of the social justice movement for so long, we’re not new to this,” Wilson said. “I think people respect us and our voices are heard. The Atlanta Dream flipped the whole Senate in that state… That is key. You don’t hear people doing that,” she said of the team’s successful public endorsement to help elect Rev. Raphael Warnock to the Georgia Senate, flipping it blue.
Elizabeth Willams believes the WNBA is uniquely qualified and poised to help push the country forward in a positive direction by speaking out on various societal issues.
“These issues affect all of us; our league more so than other people,” she said. “Lots of people have the privilege of ignoring when decisions like these are made because they have the means or resources and connections to get through it, whereas, we don’t have the luxury of just sitting back.”.
Regardless of the outcome or how they are received, the women of the WNBA say they will continue to do just that; speak out on issues and use their collective voice, power, and influence to help make this country a place where all are welcomed.
Added the Las Vegas Aces’ Dearica Hamby: “It’s a sisterhood, and we back each other. We are the kind of group that takes the leap of faith… We’re not backing down from anything.”
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