Yet even as we keep the focus on her well-being and the efforts to get her home, there’s no ignoring the way Griner’s plight exposes deeper issues about women’s sports. From questioning why her situation hasn’t garnered more attention in the never-ending news cycle here at home to wondering why she has been playing pro basketball in Russia at all when she’s already one of the WNBA’s highest-paid players with the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s story needs to be talked about.
To the former point about headlines, there is most definitely an issue of safety, as in avoiding angering Russian officials to the point that they make an example of Griner regardless of the facts. When Griner’s wife asked the public to respect their privacy while they attempt to navigate international channels, she was likely speaking to those risks. All we can say to that is “good luck and godspeed.”
But it’s also pretty obvious there is a double standard of popularity working here. One national magazine went as far as writing, “Imagine if Tom Brady were being held by Russian officials right now,” using the metric that, like Brady, Griner finished her last pro season second in MVP voting. The point is clear, if overstated, reflecting all the side-by-side differences in men’s and women’s pro sports in this country in from investment to salaries to ratings to attendance.
But there’s another answer too — and that is the fact that Brady would never have been overseas playing a second, supplemental season of football. He never would have needed to.
But that’s part of the equation in the WNBA, where many of the league’s top players double, triple, and even quadruple their league salaries with teams that are not restricted by a salary cap ($1,379,200 per team in the WNBA) or a maximum base salary for individual players ($228,094). While those structures have helped the WNBA remain the nation’s foremost women’s professional league for the past 26 years, the salary gains have been slow in coming.
The most recent CBA in January of 2020 added opportunities for top players to augment their salary up to $500,000 with bonuses and marketing deals as well as setting up many offseason opportunities in media, coaching and front office jobs. But with a relatively short four-month competitive season, it remains difficult for the league to offset the allure of overseas money, as well as competition.
When one coach can earn the equivalent of an entire team’s salary pool — Las Vegas’s Becky Hammon reportedly earns north of a million a year — the optics are bad. When one franchise can earn a hefty fine for spending too much, as the New York Liberty were for splurging on charter flights after experiencing logistical nightmares on commercial travel, the optics are bad. When another fledgling league can allocate a reported $1.1 million to keep a star playing at home, as the National Women’s Soccer League recently did with the Washington Spirit’s Trinity Rodman, the optics are bad.
Again, those issues remain for the moment secondary to Griner’s safety, a feeling captured eloquently by South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who last summer led Griner and Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
“I can’t stop thinking about and praying for Brittney Griner,” Staley tweeted Wednesday. “My prayer is for her to find the perfect peace and strength to get [through] Each day … and a special prayer for those who are working for her immediate release. Please keep them lifted in prayer until she’s stateside.”
Staley is about as loud a voice as you can find in women’s basketball, so her interest in the story and willingness to speak up about it is not surprising. Some politicians are speaking up too, including fellow Baylor alum and former Bears football player Colin Allred, a US Representative from Texas.
“I’m sure her lawyer in Russia is working through the process. But every day for anyone being held, particularly being held overseas, is a lifetime,” Allred told reporters Wednesday. “I recognize that for her friends and family, this must be an incredibly difficult time.
“And for her, I’m sure the uncertainty about what’s happening is probably just terrible. And so, hopefully, whatever happens, we can get this moving quickly and get her out.”
In many other corners of the sporting world, however, the silence has been deafening, with Griner’s plight barely cracking the discussions of a Russell Wilson trade or another baseball labor proposal. Whatever the reason, here’s hoping the silence is eventually broken and Griner’s safe return is secured.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.