On Thursday, August 4, the trial of six-time WNBA All-Star and Baylor University standout Brittney Griner came to a close.Moments before her sentencing, Griner made a statement apologizing to her family, her teammates in Russia and the United States, and her fans.
"I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy, the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, it doesn't end my life here."
Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for drug smuggling.
While the U.S Government originally advised Griner and her family to downplay her detainment, the strategy changed and eventually included elected officials and the White House weighing in. On May 3, the U.S. officially deemed Griner "wrongfully detained" and since the WNBA, the WNBA Players Association, and may others in the basketball community have vocalized their support for Griner and her wife, Cherelle.
The sentence, while not surprising to many, remains a shocking and flooded with political undertones.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” President Joseph Biden said in a statement.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and (U.S. Marine) Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."
On August 1, the United States called on Russia to do a prisoner swap: free Griner and Whelan for Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. Russia rejected this proposal.
The process of bringing Griner home will take time. However, it needs to remain a priority. Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said prior to the verdict being announced, the court ignored all evidence but will work to appeal the court’s decision.
The Basketball Community Reacts to Sentancing
Meanwhile, in the United States, Griner’s teammates share their heartbreak over the verdict and the ongoing situation.
“It’s heavy, it’s heavy, y’all,” Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins Smith told the media after a 77-64 loss to the Connecticut Sun Thursday night. Diggins-Smith expressed that she and her teammates are at a loss and the constant questioning about the matter adds to their trauma.
“It’s our sister. This is not some random Jane off the street. It’s not anything we’re politicizing. It’s a human being," Diggins-Smith said.
The pain and gravity of the situation are unimaginable. Yet, Griner’s WNBA colleagues have remained consistent with their call to ‘Bring BG Home’. When the Chicago Sky hosted the 2022 WNBA All-Star Weekend, the league and greater basketball community uplifted her name and her circumstance.
Throughout the three-day event celebration, the players made it a priority to keep Griner’s name at the forefront. Players wore Griner’s name, along with her number, on their warmups t-shirts throughout the All-Star Weekend.
Saturday in a press conference, I asked Washington Mystics guard, Ariel Atkins, how she feels about Griner’s situation.
“I believe the Rally was a good start. We’re constantly fighting to make sure she’s heard and doing everything we can to keep her name alive,” she told me before the WNBA Skills Competition.
Griner's Situation and the Gender Pay Gap
The reality of why Griner is even playing overseas is upsetting. She, like her peers, plays overseas because of pay inequity between men’s and women’s basketball players. In April, NPR reported NBA players make 44 times what the average WNBA player makes. That is why many professional women’s basketball players compete overseas in the offseason, including Brittney Griner.
The UMMC Ekaterinburg center reportedly makes S1 million a year overseas playing in the Russian Premier League compared to her $221,450 Phoenix Mercury salary.
“Griner has only had one Thanksgiving in the states in nine years since going pro,” Cherelle said in an interview with ESPN. The pay difference between the States and overseas lures players to feel like this is the only option available to them.
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi spent more than a decade overseas in Russia, playing for UMMC Yekaterinburg during her WNBA off-season. The pay overseas is hard to pass up for women in a profession with a shelf life. Eventually, players will retire and enter a new profession where they will are also likely to be underpaid.
That is why in 2015, Taurasi announced she would not return to the Phoenix Mercury for the season. Her Russian team paid her to sit out the WNBA season so she would be rested for her winter season.
“The year-round nature of women's basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down. They offered to pay me to rest, and I've decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing,” Taurasi said in a letter to fans.
Taurasi returned to the WNBA in 2016 as promised, but the move was the beginning of the ongoing battle to increase player pay.
Griner’s detention and now conviction in Russia have shined more light on the gender pay gap in basketball. As the battle for pay equity wages on, WNBA players now hope the Biden Administration will do everything possible to bring Griner and other U.S. prisoners home from Russia.