Column: Griner case again exposes male-female gap in sports

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Posted at 4:52 PM, Mar 13, 2022

(AP) — The strange case of Brittney Griner raises all sorts of perplexing questions.

Is one of the best women basketball players in the world a political pawn in the standoff between two antagonistic superpowers? Is she being treated like anyone else who allegedly violated drug laws in a foreign land? Is she safe in the hands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

But one thing is clear: Griner’s weeks-long detention by Russian authorities has again directed a troubling spotlight toward the glaring inequities that exist between the top male and female athletes in the United States.

Just imagine if one of the best male basketball players on the planet — say, LeBron James — was being held in Russia under similar circumstances, especially with that country now scorned by much of the world for its unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The public outrage would be off the charts.

Griner’s case has drawn concern, to be sure, but it largely remains buried behind Major Leagues Baseball’s silly labor dispute, the homestretch of the NBA season, the launch of March Madness in college hoops, and an NFL offseason featuring headline-grabbing moves like Calvin Ripley’s suspension and Russell Wilson’s trade.

Richard Sheehan, a finance professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who specializes in sports economics, said he’s not surprised that male sports continue to get more coverage than Griner’s case.

“Obviously, if this was LeBron James, more people would notice,” Sheehan said. “There’s not too many people in the United States who would say, ‘LeBron James, who is he?’ But there’s still a fairly high number who would say, ‘Brittney Griner, who is she?’”

Sheehan is more troubled by another reality of this case.

Griner was taken into custody while heading back to Russia to play in a league that greatly augments her WNBA salary, a puny outlay in comparison to what the best male athletes are making.

While this is certainly apples to oranges, Griner’s annual pay for a four-month stint with the Phoenix Mercury is $228,000 (and probably closer to $500,000 with endorsement deals) — a comfortable living, to be sure, but not even a third of what big league players were asking for as a MINIMUM salary in their negotiations with baseball’s owners.

“LeBron James makes a very good living in the United States without ever having to set foot outside the United States,” Sheehan said. “But women basketball players can make a hell of a lot more money playing in places like Russia than they can in the United States.”

While salaries have certainly improved in the WNBA — roughly half of the league’s players no longer feel compelled to play overseas — it’s still a choice that no modern-day NBA player has to make.

In a perfect world, no WNBA player would ever have to make it, either.

But we’re a long way from that world.

Just last season, the New York Liberty were fined a WNBA-record $500,000 for chartering flights to away games. The league typically doesn’t allow teams to charter flights because it could create a competitive advantage for franchises that can afford to pay for them.

Given the WNBA’s still-shoestring budget, it’s easy to see why Griner was headed back a country where she reportedly makes more than $1 million a year even as the U.S. State Department advised against it with the threat of war looming.

The most immediate concern is Griner’s well-being.

The specifics of her case have been hard to come by, from both sides. Griner was taken into custody in mid-February at a Moscow airport, but the news was kept under wraps until a Russian news agency revealed it more than two weeks later, after the invasion of Ukraine was underway.

The Griner camp clearly wanted to keep the case out of the public eye until the two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star was safely ferried out of Russia.

Even now, those closest to the player have been reticent to make any comment beyond her agent confirming Griner was detained after Russian customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, thanked everyone for their support of the star player, but said little else in an Instagram post.

This wouldn’t be the first time a high-profile person has essentially been taken hostage by a country in the pursuit of larger foreign-relations goals.

Just this week, Venezuela released two Americans who had been imprisoned in the South American country over dubious charges, not so coincidentally as President Nicolás Maduro signaled a desire for improved relations with the U.S.

One of those released, oil executive Gustavo Cardenas, was imprisoned for more than four years in Venezuela. He described the experience as a “nightmare.”

At the moment, there is no indication that Griner is being held on trumped-up charges. Maybe this was just a lapse in judgment, which has put her at risk of being subjected to stricter punishments for cannabis oil under Russian law.

But the war in Ukraine certainly complicates matters, at least raising the possibility that Russia is dragging its feet on Griner’s case to give Putin a potential bargaining chip in a negotiated settlement or to lessen the sting of crushing economic sanctions.

The State Department can designate someone as a “wrongful detainee,” entitling an American citizen to far more resources than a standard criminal case in another country.

It doesn’t appear Griner has been placed in that category, at least not yet. Strict Russian guidelines on COVID-19 have likely extended Griner’s period of isolation, making it tougher for the U.S. consulate to get a full picture of the case.

Hopefully, in the very near future, Griner will be back home with her loved ones, this nightmare behind her.

Until then, let’s keep her at the forefront of our concerns.

Griner’s fate is far more important than the new baseball labor deal, or who makes the NCAA Tournament, or pretty much anything else happening in the fantasy world of sports.

This is real life.