It’s been 63 days and counting since WNBA Brittney Griner was first detained in Russia for allegedly having hashish oil in her luggage. Yes, we are still counting the days. No, we are not giving up hope, nor are we letting this story fade quietly into the background of the upcoming WNBA season, set to tip off in May.
The WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and forward for the Phoenix Mercury was last seen on March 23, after an embassy official was granted access to see her, reporting that she was in “good condition.” But as WNBA teams enter training camp this week, “good condition” isn’t good enough, and a dark cloud is hanging over the entire league and its leadership as the issue of pay equity takes center court.
As a quick refresher, Griner plays overseas during the off season for the MMC Ekaterinburg, where she reportedly earns more than $1 million per season as compared to the $228,000 salary cap in the WNBA. If the Russian investigation into her (bullshit) drug possession does not conclude by May 19, Griner will be held in detention for another undetermined bout of time. Perhaps most concerning of all, Griner is a queer Black woman trapped in a country that is actively violent towards LGBTQIA people in the middle of a bloody war.
While government officials have been notoriously tight-lipped on the matter for fragile security purposes, they’ve provided hopeful breadcrumbs every month or so, assuring the American public that they’re doing something while being demure about what exactly that thing is. Last month, after the American diplomat was granted access to Griner, US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said, “We will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal.”
While the WNBA and its commissioner Cathy Engelbert have said that they working with government officials and doing everything in their power to get Griner home, those statements ring hollow as Engelbert has repeatedly tried to convince the public that their athletes play overseas for “passion.” In her most recent public appearance at the WNBA draft in April, Engelbert doubled down on her messaging that players “want to play basketball” year round, insinuating that a desire to simply improve their game is the driving force behind Griner’s presence in Russia in the first place.
But there’s something strategic and almost sinister about that particular WNBA talking point that harkens to the ballooning labor movement happening in the larger corporate world. Just because these women are “playing” basketball doesn’t mean it’s not work. The WNBA isn’t a silly little extracurricular: It’s these women’s dreams and careers. As Griner remains “heavy on the minds” of her teammates and players across the league as they gear up for the season, the idea that work is work and nothing more bears repeating, even when that “work” involves throwing a ball back and forth. And where there’s work, there’s a right to equal pay.
“We’re treated well,” Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players’ Association, explained on Good Morning America last week. “We don’t want to play 12 months out of the year. We don’t want to feel as though we have to go over there to get what we want to get at home.”
At the end of the day, she said, Griner isn’t here, and that’s because of a “gender issue” in the league—not because of Griner’s relentless passion.
“The reality is she’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity,” she said. “I played in Russia for four years and played in Poland for one year and China for two years. We go over there to supplement our incomes and quite frankly to maintain our game. Our teams encourage us to keep up with our game by going over there and being more competitive. There’s so much that’s at play that, you know, we live politically intrinsically.”
It’s high time the WNBA takes at least a little bit of responsibility for one of their own currently imprisoned by a Russian dictator. Until they do, we will, as promised, be counting down the days.