Brittney Griney condemned: Why does a US basketball star even play in Russia?

The case against the American basketball player Brittney Griner not only moves the sports world. Her fate has long since become a political issue. For years she also earned her annual living in Russia. Or rather had to earn it. That was her undoing.

She has won everything: championships, Olympic gold, world titles. She’s one of the best basketball players ever. With her 2.06 meters she can easily stuff the ball into the ring. The way she played revolutionized women’s basketball. But her amazing skills and popularity aren’t getting much for Brittney Griner right now. She is in a Russian prison. A court in the city of Khimki sentenced her to nine years in prison. She also has to pay a fine of one million rubles (equivalent to 16,000 euros). The reason: illegal drug possession.

It sounds like a chain of unfortunate events that this successful US athlete is caught with vape cartridges and hash oil at a Russian airport of all places. Many may wonder why Griner went to Russia in the first place. Political relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained for years and are at a low point due to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.

But the fact that Brittney Griner was at Sheremetyevo Airport on that fateful February 17 is no coincidence. For years she has been earning her living not only in the USA, but also in Russia. At the European heavyweight UGMK Yekaterinburg. Griner has also celebrated a number of successes with this club. But her second job is her undoing. Her rationale for the 0.5 gram of cannabis in her luggage – pain medication prescribed by her doctor – counts for nothing for the Russian judiciary. She is found guilty.

Double commitment is not uncommon

It is not uncommon for professional women basketball players who play in the American WBNA league to also sign on with foreign clubs and thus secure another source of income. There are lucrative leagues in Russia, Turkey and China, for example. The currently best German basketball player, Satou Sabally, has not only been under contract with the Dallas Wings since 2020, but also with Fenerbahçe Istanbul. According to media reports, she earned $ 71,000 in the USA in the 2021 season. Her contract runs until 2024.

Brittney Griner is one of the higher earners. She was most recently paid the maximum salary of $227,000. According to media reports, she received four times as much in Russia. One of her well-known companions, the also extremely successful Sue Bird, recently gave up part of her salary and signed a contract with an annual income of 72,141 US dollars.

With her waiver, she wanted to help her team to pay more good players, like the five-time (!) Olympic champion. “At the end of the day, it’s more important to me to win and be in a good team. And if that means we need money to get other players, then I’m in. I’ve been for the last three seasons “, she is quoted by ESPN.

The salary should be at least six figures

The women’s season in the USA is relatively short. It started in May this year and is expected to end in September. Only 36 games are planned in the regular season, plus the playoffs. For comparison: In the NBA, male professionals are on the court more than 80 times before the playoffs begin.

While the average salary for an NBA player in 2019 was $7.5 million, it was $116,000 for women. Incidentally, in the male league, a super deal was recently made with the MVP (most valuable player) of the past season, Nikola Jokic. His five-year extension with the Denver Nuggets earns him $264 million. A new record in the NBA. So far, such sums were mainly known from football.

early 2020 agreed league and players association for an increase in salaries in the WNBA in the period up to 2027. In addition to concessions and bonuses, top players should be able to receive around 500,000 dollars a year. The average salary should also be in the six figures for the first time – for both rookies and more experienced players.

“My career is my whole life”

It is not a new phenomenon that female athletes have to fight for fairer wages time and time again. This debate also affects women’s soccer in Germany. A direct comparison with their male counterparts is often difficult. In many sports, for example, the ratings and thus the advertising revenue for men are higher. The leagues often have a much longer tradition and a correspondingly higher standing. For comparison: The NBA was founded in 1946, the WNBA in 1996.

It is not at all about women earning the same, exorbitantly high sums as men. But at least the same share of the revenue. But most sports are still a long way from that. This also applies to the recognition of outstanding achievements, regardless of the monetary aspect. And it is clear that pro basketball players in the USA are not poor. In addition to their salary, they can also sign advertising contracts or earn money in other ways. But it is questionable whether the average player can use this to create a comfortable financial cushion for the time after her career.

But it is also a fact that the double strain of playing in two leagues pushes players to their physical limits. The risk of injury from constant stress is correspondingly higher. This is also emphasized by Brittney Griner. “My career is my whole life,” she said recently during the trial in Chimki. “I’ve put everything in it – time, my body, time away from my family. I’ve been away from everyone six months out of the year with a huge time difference.”

And that’s not all: As a queer and black person, traveling every year to a country where homophobia is part of the raison d’état is difficult in itself. Now, if no prisoner exchange is negotiated, she could be in prison for years. Your career would probably be over then.

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