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How Brittney Grier Has Forced a Conversation About Equal Pay in Sports

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Brittney Griner, one of the most decorated players in WNBA history, is still jailed in Russia. That has been the headline since the story was initially reported, and Russian state TV released Griner’s booking photo. What many people may not know, or may often forget, is the reason why Griner was in Russia in the first place. She wasn’t on vacation, or looking for opportunities outside of the WNBA; Brittney Griner went to Russia because the unfortunate reality is that WNBA players are forced to go overseas to seek supplemental pay in the offseason. 

In the 2020-2021 season, Kevin Durant was the highest paid NBA player on the USA Men’s Olympic basketball team, boasting a salary of some $39.1 million. In the same year, for the Women’s USA Olympic basketball team, four WNBA players — Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, and Brittney Griner — were only making $221,500. Sadly, they were also the league’s highest-paid players. For further comparison, the total worth of the Men’s Olympic team was $240.4 million, whereas for the women, it was a paltry $1.9 million. 

The unfortunate development here, which Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas wrote about in her op-ed for the LA Times, is that outside of the WNBA and its fans, Brittney was largely invisible to the public. That is, until she was detained by Russia. 

“It shouldn’t take the detention of a female professional athlete for us to have a serious discussion about pay inequality in sports, specifically the WNBA,” says Alex Windsor, CEO of Gamble USA. “It should remain clear that there is an understanding regarding why the WNBA does not have the revenue support that the NBA has, but that fact does not make the issue any less important.”

As we’ve seen with NCAA March Madness and the investment of college students, universities, and fans, women’s basketball can be very popular if they are given the air-time and media attention that they deserve. Colas also wrote in her op-ed about sponsorships, saying, “Sponsor dollars paid directly to WNBA stars would provide the fastest, most direct route to dramatically decrease the number of players who go overseas to supplement their income.” This notion is the root of the issue. We must improve the situation for female athletes here, at home, so they do not have to go abroad for supplemental income. 

Currently, Turkey and Russia offer the most lucrative opportunities for female basketball players, so it’s little surprise that Brittney Griner (or any other WNBA star) would look for opportunities elsewhere during the offseason. It’s also important to note that there is no quick fix for this issue. Sue Bird, a 20-year WNBA veteran in her final season, and a prime candidate for the Naismith Hall of Fame, believes that the WNBA should receive the same media coverage and sponsor opportunities that the NBA does. Once that happens, they can begin to see a rise in salaries for the league’s players.  

“In recent years, we’ve seen an increased partnership between sports betting apps such as Draft Kings and FanDuel, and professional sports leagues,” Windsor says. “The media coverage mentioned by Sue Bird could be amplified with a larger focus on sports betting.”

The primary theme in this issue is that of visibility. The WNBA wants to have the same opportunities afforded to them the NBA has, opportunities that allow tens — if not hundreds — of millions of fans to watch their games around the country, and the world. Certain small businesses, such as the newly-opened The Sports Bra in Portland, Oregon, have taken the initiative to support women’s sports. This is a prime example of how the community can do their part to make a difference, begin to turn the tide, and level the playing field. 

It’s extremely unfortunate that something like this had to happen for the public to have a serious conversation about the avoidable circumstances that female athletes often face. Nevertheless, it’s equally as important to have this conversation now, and begin to enact change that matters. As mentioned by Colas at the end of her op-ed, the most important thing that can come out of this conversation is that no one experiences what Brittney Griner has had to endure.

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