From Billie Jean King in 1973 to the Women’s National Soccer Team today, the gender pay and opportunity gap in American sports has stood stubbornly against legislation meant to prevent it.1 Now, as American basketball player Brittney Griner’s story unfolds, this persistence may be growing beyond a mere domestic nuisance and into an international nightmare.2 Griner, a two-time Olympian and star of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested on February 17, 2022, in Moscow, Russia, while en route from the United States to Ekaterinburg, where she supplements her U.S. basketball salary and schedule with international play.3
Hash oil residue was allegedly found inside otherwise-empty vape cartridges in her luggage.4 Many elite athletes have been known to use cannabis products to reduce pain with fewer side effects than traditional painkillers.5 In August, Griner was convicted of drug smuggling for what amounted to less than a gram of residue and sentenced to serve 9.5 years in a Russian forced labor camp.6
With Griner’s extreme sentence, the reason why female professional athletes must put themselves at risk of incurring the wrath of extreme foreign governments and prison systems can be ignored no longer. This year’s top NBA draft pick will lock in a $9.1M salary, which, when divided across the 82-game season, breaks down to $110,845 per game.7 The salary for the #1 draft pick for the WNBA is $72,141 per year.8 In other words, with an NBA game lasting 48 minutes, the top male draft pick will earn his female counterpart’s entire annual salary in 31 minutes. But this extraordinary pay gap is not limited to the top players. The average per game base pay in the NBA of $100,610 dwarfs the WNBA’s average per-game base pay of $2,854.9,10 With 36 games per season for the women, it would take the average WNBA player the entire season to earn what the men make in a single game.
The gender disparity in basketball does not stop with the pay gap, however. With only 36 games per year in the WNBA compared to 82 in the NBA, many female players find it necessary to play abroad to find competitive opportunities to continue to refine and develop their skills in the prolonged U.S. off-season.11 It was this combination of low play and limited competitive opportunities that led Griner to sign on with Russian women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2014, the team she still represented at the time of her arrest. In fact, Griner testified during her trial that she decided to return to Ekaterinburg despite U.S. Homeland Security’s advisory against American citizens traveling to Russia and despite recently recovering from contracting COVID-19 because it was “the most important part of the [Russian] season. . . . It’s playoffs.”12
Now labelled a drug trafficker by the Russian government and “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. government,13 Griner has become a political pawn in what could become one of the world’s most consequential prisoner trades.14 U.S. officials have offered to trade Viktor Bout, a Russian national who the U.S. government considers to be “the world’s most notorious arms dealer,”15 for Griner and Paul Whelan, the latter of whom the U.S. has deemed to be wrongfully detained for a 2018 Russian charge of espionage.16
What makes this proposed trade of particular international consequence is Bout’s history of not only fueling conflicts related to Russian political interests but also of lining his pockets by prolonging international and civil wars with weapons deals to both sides of armed conflicts around the world.17 The United Nations lists Bout as having close ties to former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted of war crimes for his involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war.18 Additionally, the U.N. has connected Bout to weapons deals to both sides of civil wars and armed conflicts in Angola, Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, Columbia, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, among others.19 Bout’s weapons provisions to both sides can prolong the wars, which in turn create demand for more weapons, and the cycle continues. 20 The cycle ended in March 2008 when Bout was arrested in Thailand. He is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in New York after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill U.S. officials and employees; conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles; and conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization.21
Prisoner trades are not unprecedented between the U.S. and Russia, as American citizen Trevor Reed came home earlier just this year as part of a prisoner swap after serving three years of a nine year sentence in Russia.22 He was convicted of “endangering the ‘life and health’ of Russian police officers”—charges he and his family claim were bogus.23 Now, in what could circumvent the need to release Bout, Reed has asked the United Nations to intervene on Griner’s behalf via the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.24 The group is tasked with investigating and encouraging compliance with several international human rights provisions, including both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment.25 Specifically, international standards against arbitrary detention mandate that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest [or] detention” and “everyone is entitled . . . to . . . an independent and impartial tribunal.” 26
Considering Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which the United States has clearly condemned,27 a strong case could be made that Russia is neither independent nor impartial in its decisions regarding Griner’s detention. Additionally, Russian courts are holding firm on their conviction despite the disproportionately long—and arguably “arbitrary”—sentence of nine years of forced labor for what amounted to poorly-cleaned vape canisters.28 Even though Russian officials have not yet indicated whether they will accept the United States’ offer to swap Griner and Whelan for Bout, it seems that any persuasion from the United Nations has proven to be ineffective, as her conviction was upheld as recently as last week at her appeal hearing.29 While Griner’s future remains unclear, what has become abundantly clear is that the American tradition of paying female athletes less and offering fewer opportunities has ramifications far more significant and far-reaching than previously envisioned.
1 Sarah Mervosh & Christina Caron, 8 Times Women in Sports Fought for Equality, N.Y. Times (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/sports/women-sports-equality.html.
2 Kylie Atwood et al., CNN Exclusive: Biden Administration Offers Convicted Russian Arms Dealer in Exchange for Griner, Whelan, CNN (July 28, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/27/politics/griner-whelan-biden-offer-viktor-bout-exchange-russia-arms-dealer/index.html.
3 Olafimihan Oshin, Why Brittney Griner is Being Held in Russia, The Hill (May 4, 2022), https://thehill.com/policy/3477308-why-birttney-griner-is-being-held-in-russia/.
4 Holly Yan, What We Know (and Don’t Know) About the Arrest of US Olympic Champion Brittney Griner in Russia, CNN (March 17, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/07/world/what-we-know-brittney-griner-arrest-russia/index.html.
5 Griner’s Russian Court Defence: The Medicinal Use of Cannabis, Aljazeera (Jul 26, 2022), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/26/griners-russian-court-defence-the-medicinal-use-of-cannabis.
6 Mark Trevelyan et al., Brittney Griner Faces Bleak Life in Russian Penal Colony, Reuters (Nov. 3, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/brittney-griner-faces-bleak-life-russian-penal-colony-2022-11-03/.
7 Chinmay Vaidya, How Much Money Will 2022 NBA Draft First-Round Picks Make? Draftkings Nation (June 23, 2022), https://dknation.draftkings.com/2022/6/23/23178387/nba-draft-2022-draft-picks-salary-rookie-contract-scale-first-round-team-option-qualifying-offer.
8 David Suggs, How Much Do WNBA Players Make? Top 10 Salaries, Max Conrtacts, Rookie Deals for 2022 Season, The Sporting News (May 6, 2022), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/wnba/news/wnba-players-salaries-2022-top-10-max-contracts-rookie-deals/nekwwspimejhecw4iqscjvsm.
9 Dimitrije Curcic, NBA Salaries Analysis (1991-2022), RunRepeat (Nov. 10, 2021), https://runrepeat.com/salary-analysis-in-the-nba-1991-2019.
10 Sanjesh Singh, WNBA Salaries: Who Has the Highest, League Average, More, NBC Sports Wash. (Sept. 4, 2022), https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/washington-mystics/wnba-salaries-who-has-highest-league-average-more.
11 Oshin, supra note 3.
12 I Flew to Russia Despite Travel Warning…So I Could Help My Team, TMZ Sports (July 27, 2022), https://www.tmz.com/2022/07/27/brittney-griner-testifies-court-aware-of-travel-advisory-but-wanted-to-help-my-team/.
13 Minyvonne Burke & Abigail Williams, Brittney Griner Now Considered “Wrongfully Detained” in Russia, U.S. Official Say, NBC News (May 3, 2022), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/brittney-griner-now-considered-wrongfully-detained-russia-us-officials-rcna27084.
14 60 Minutes, Viktor Bout: Capturing “The Merchant of Death” (CBS News television broadcast Nov. 18, 2010), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/viktor-bout-capturing-the-merchant-of-death/.
16 Kylie Atwood et al., CNN Exclusive: Biden Administration Offers Convicted Russian Arms Dealer in Exchange for Griner, Whelan, CNN (July 28, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/27/politics/griner-whelan-biden-offer-viktor-bout-exchange-russia-arms-dealer/index.html.
17 Eliza Mackintosh, Who is Viktor Bout, Russian Arms Dealer Known as the “Merchant of Death”, Touted for US Prisoner Swap?, CNN (July 27, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/27/americas/viktor-bout-profile-intl/index.html.
18 Viktor Bout: Who is “The Merchant of Death”?, BBC News (July 28, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-11036569.
20 Mackintosh, supra note 17.
21 United States v. Bout, No. 08 Cr. 365(SAS), 2011 WL 2693720 (S.D.N.Y. July 11, 2011).
22 Melissa Alonso, Trevor Reed Files Petition Against Russia with UN, Asking His Detention Be Declared Unlawful, He Tells CNN, CNN World (June 15, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/14/europe/trevor-reed-un-petition-russia/index.html.
25 United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, International Standards: Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/wg-arbitrary-detention/international-standards (last visited Nov. 4, 2022).
26 United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/en/human-rights/universal-declaration/translations/english (last visited Nov. 4, 2022).
28 Anna Chernova et al., Russian Court Upholds Brittney Griner’s Drug Smuggling Conviction, CNN World (Oct. 25, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/25/europe/brittney-griner-appeal-hearing.