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Brittney Griner and the WNBA: Organizational Issues

Earlier this week, Russian courts decided to deny WNBA star Britney Griner’s appeal of her nine-year prison sentence. As a result, Griner will be transferred from a prison in Moscow to a “remote” penal colony elsewhere in Russia. This result comes as no surprise but offers us another opportunity to examine the surrounding circumstances.

At this point, most people have heard of this situation from the coverage in mainstream and sports-related media over the past 8 months, but it is worth a quick synopsis. In February of this year, Griner was arrested for allegedly possessing cannabis oil in her luggage while in Russia and was then sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison as a result of “smuggling” the product. Griner has apologized to her friends and family for her mistake of having these in her luggage.

Both president Joe Biden and WNBA commissioner Kathy Engelbert have condemned these actions and have promised to “work with Griner” and Russia to get her home “as quickly as possible,” with her still being in custody 8 months later with her conviction upheld in court. All of this comes at a time when possession of cannabis in the United States is being widely decriminalized, but usage by professional athletes continues to be considered a violation of league rules across the country.

This situation has obviously become an international political issue with wide-ranging implications, but it also raises some important questions about women’s sports here in the US—many of which are overshadowed and under-discussed given these geopolitical undertones.

It's important to note the reason Greiner was even in Russia in the first place, which serves to highlight certain issues within the WNBA itself.

Important Disclaimer:

I am not an expert on geopolitical issues, and there is no question this situation involves a lot of complex geopolitical issues. As someone who covers important sports and legal issues here with Conduct Detrimental, the Griner situation offers an interesting perspective into structural issues faced by the WNBA as a whole that warrant discussion—and while impossible to talk about in a way that ignores the greater political forces and issues, I do my best to analyze this from a more organizational perspective to illustrate the context and sports-centric issues highlighted by the existence of this situation.

Why Griner Was in Russia in the First Place

Griner was in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian Women's Basketball Premier League [RWBPL], which is Russia’s equivalent of the WNBA. Playing for an overseas team in the off-season is quite common for WNBA players, but in most other professional sports in the United States is not something that occurs with any regularity—and in many situations is outright prohibited. The reason for the prevalence of this practice is simple and ultimately comes down to earning potential.

Griner—whose accomplishments include being the only women’s basketball player in NCAA history to record 2,000 points and also 500 blocked shots, three-time All-American, 2012 AP Player of the year and Most Outstanding Player of the Year, and Olympic gold medalist (among many other accolades)—is currently on a three-year, $644,544 contract with the Phoenix Mercury. That translates to an average yearly salary of $221,515 annually. Within the WNBA as a whole, the minimum annual salary is $60,000, with a supermax contract in the league being approximately $228,094. The salary cap for WNBA teams is currently around 1.4 million dollars.

For some perspective, The NBA’s salary cap for 2022 is approximately 122 million dollars, with the minimum rookie salary being slightly over $1 million, with a supermax contract having a value of up to 35% of the team’s entire salary cap, increasing by 8% annually. Currently, the highest supermax contract for an NBA player is held by Nikola Jokic, who signed his supermax extension with the Nuggets earlier this year for an additional 264 million (an average of 52.8 million dollars annually). This means that a WNBA supermax contract is worth only around 0.4% of Jokic’s 2022 supermax contract in the NBA.

This disparity is ultimately the reason so many WNBA players also compete overseas and essentially year-round. Griner’s RWBPL contract Was approximately $1,000,000 a year—meaning she was making 77% more per year by playing in Russia than she was in the US. This phenomenon of playing overseas in the offseason is almost ubiquitous within the WNBA because these athletes are rightfully attempting to maximize their earning potential in overseas leagues that are more respected and celebrated (and thus can pay them more).

WNBA CBA Agreement

An issue that arises with these players participating in these overseas leagues is the schedule does not always line up well with the WNBA season. Most of the international leagues tend to occur during the winter (the offseason for the WNBA), with teams that are good enough to compete in the championship having their seasons extended into late February or early March regularly. training camp for WNBA teams begins in February, posing a direct conflict with four players participating in both leagues. At the start of the 2021 WNBA season, 35 players reported to training camp “late” and 12 missed at least one game at the start of the season.

The WNBA players and owners came to a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, which threatens this accepted industry norm of playing in overseas leagues by adding a “prioritization” requirement for players. According to the CBA, starting with the 2023 season any player who does not report by the beginning of training camp will potentially face punitive repercussions through the use of fines, and if a player misses the first game of the season they will be suspended for the entire season. In 2024 the rules become more strict, with players missing the start of training camp being suspended without exception.

On the one hand, I do understand where the league and its owners are coming from with the implementation of this rule. If you have a contracted player whose duties include reporting to training camp and actually playing in games, you want to ensure that they are actually there when they're supposed to be. However, I think this rule also has its issues.

The reason these players are reporting late is that they're playing in overseas leagues that are paying them more. What incentive does a player have to leave an overseas league early when that league is paying them over $1,000,000 a year to make it back on time for a league that only allows them to be paid a maximum of less than 1/3 of that? I understand why ownership felt this rule was necessary, but it ultimately just treats a symptom of the underlying issue.

Exposing That Underlying Issue

The underlying issue here isn't that WNBA players aren't reporting on time to camp, which is a symptom—it's that they aren't being paid enough in the first place.

The WNBA is widely believed to have some of the best quality of talent for women's basketball in the world, but nowhere near the best salaries. These two things should go hand in hand—if you have the best talent and quality of play, economic logic suggests that that league also has the highest salaries. If you're playing in what is considered the premier women’s basketball league with the highest concentration of talent in the world, player salaries should reflect that. As mentioned above, with a WNBA supermax contract representing as little as 20% of a player’s salary in an overseas league like the RWBPL, there are clear issues of equity that exist between the WNBA and these overseas women’s basketball leagues.

The WNBA has been around for 25 years at this point. It is not some new upstart league, and it is directly affiliated with the NBA. The fact that the WNBA is set up and managed differently than many international leagues is not enough of an excuse to have players maximum salaries being less than 20% of what they could make by playing in leagues that are seen as lesser from a competitive standpoint—and in a league where a supermax contract is worth less 0.4% of the constituent male leagues supermax.

The NBA tends to be one of the more socially conscious of the major United States professional sports leagues, but they're not doing enough to actually promote gender and pay equality between the WNBA and these overseas leagues. As a result, the credibility of the NBA’s efforts and the WNBA itself is called into question by these direct inequalities between the two leagues in the US and the low pay provided to WNBA players compared to overseas leagues.

Back to Griner

We've now established that the reason Griner was even in Russia in the first place was to maximize her earning potential, something that the WNBA itself (as it currently functions) does not allow her to do. This inherent failing of the WNBA causes Griner and many other WNBA players to go overseas to potentially more hostile and legally strict countries in an attempt to maximize their earning potential. All of the political complications set aside, Griner’s situation would very likely not exist if the professional basketball leagues in the United States had more effectively tackled the issue of gender and pay inequality, and if these players were compensated at a more competitive level compared to (at least) these competing international leagues.

Yes, Griner violated the law in Russia by having this cannabis oil in her luggage. Yes, there are going to be consequences for violating the law of whatever sovereign that you are in at the time. However, the only reason she was in Russia in the first place is because of this pay inequity between both the WNBA and international leagues and the NBA. This inequity is what created the circumstances in which this event unfolded in the first place.

If pay in the WNBA was more equitable to (at the very least) these international leagues, the need for a prioritization rule in the new CBA agreement with harsh penalties would likely not be something that would be an issue, because there would be no impetus for these players to prioritize other leagues and opportunities over playing in the WNBA.

I do not pretend that the Britney Griner situation is very complex because of the politics at work in the background. But don't let these political complications distract from the underlying issues that helped create the situation in the first place. Thinking about these structural reasons that Griner and other WNBA players are having to play basically year-round is important to consider as members of the sports law community so that we can work towards creating a more equitable environment for professional women's sports leagues here in the United States, so the leagues and the ways in which they are set up are both internationally and intranationally equitable.

Zachary Bryson is a graduate from Wake Forest University with B.A. in Economics and a Minor in Entrepreneurship. He is currently JD candidate at Elon University School of Law, Class of 2023. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on twitter at @ZacharySBryson

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