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Opinion: Brittney Griner deserves better—from Russia and the WNBA

A queer Black woman remains imprisoned on trumped-up charges in Putin's Russia—where she played because of pay disparity in the US. Efran Menny laments.

Brittney Griner in Russia while being detained on drug charges. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

For the past several months, the global sports community has been outraged by the wrongful detention of Brittney Griner by the Russian government. Though her ordeal is happening halfway around the world, the cold-hearted ripple effects illuminate the intersections of sexual orientation, race, and gender.

African Americans have been consistently wrestling with the structural aspects of White Supremacy embedded within our own criminal justice system. We know that African Americans are more likely to experience lengthier and stricter sentences. Women's incarceration has grown at twice the rate of men's incarceration. LGB individuals are incarcerated at rates three times that of the adult population as a whole.

With these horrifying facts, the inescapable truth is that Griner’s detainment is an intersectional social justice issue. Her unfair treatment abroad is a blow for African Americans already at war with a system hostile to equal treatment under the law. For Black women, it's a terrifying chain of events that not only touches their racial identity but reiterates sexism. If this were Stephen Curry or another like him, the coverage would dominate ESPN, print media, and major news outlets.

As a queer Black woman, Griner instead faces the terrorizing reminder that every aspect of her being is a target.

It’s no surprise that Russia has a scary track record of harmful public opinion and policy regarding LGBTQ+ persons. As has been stated before, seeing international LGBTQ+ awareness and advocacy as a pro-life issue is essential. It's with this same call to action that we can take a vocal stance on decriminalizing sexual orientation and gender identity in countries with human rights abuses. By doing so, we create a global community that is affirming and less threatening to the marginalized and neglected.

Equally disturbing, though, is the reason why Griner was in Russia in the first place. Because the WNBA’s pay standard differs dramatically from that of the NBA, which subsidizes the league, many WNBA players also play overseas to earn a more suitable wage. By doing so, Griner makes an estimated $1 million every season. How depressing it is that even the professional league of women’s basketball suffers from sexism! We have a system telling women that in order to make a fraction of the multimillion-dollar agreement an NBA rookie makes, they have to jeopardize their safety and livelihood.

For example, the #1 NBA draft pick, Paolo Banchero, reportedly signed a 4-year contract for $50 million. On the other hand, the WNBA’s top pick, Rhyne Howard, signed a three-year deal for $226,000 plus endorsements. Both are equally competitive, hard-working players in their respective league, and experience the same rigor on the court, but a despicable chasm in pay persists.

I vaguely remember when the WNBA was introduced in the mid-1990s. Some of my family members chided the new league as a trivial development. Indeed, many people think the WNBA is sub-par in competitiveness and is less engaging than the NBA. Moreover, with the gulf-sized inequality in finances, WNBA endorsements and deals aren't as abundant compared to the men's league, nor do they have nearly as much publicity and or annual revenue.

However, women and men play the same sport, and both undergo intense in- and off-season regimens, but they have wildly different economic prospects and outcomes. When you examine how the marketing and lack of promotional opportunities for the WNBA maintain this division, it reveals just how much the league values paying women fairly. This approach, which encourages women to play abroad, deems women as expendable. It puts the dignity of women’s lives in jeopardy.

I'd like to see serious conversations happen about how to close the gap so that WNBA players can make similar or comparable deals compared to men. Further, it’s incumbent upon President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to do everything they can to negotiate a fair and globally-responsible arrangement for the safety of Griner. This queer Black woman worked abroad to make a living and the US needs to realize and take ownership of the perilous domestic conditions that drove her to play in an antagonistic country like Russia.

The repatriation of Griner, a wrongfully detained political prisoner, should be seen as being of the utmost importance. We all must elevate this case daily until the proper advocacy and attention are given.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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