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Griner returns to basketball after her detention in Russia with a bigger platform and a desire to reshape women’s sports.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, drawing focus to the plights of detainees and athletes in women’s sports.Credit...Jan Robert Dünnweller
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By Jonathan Abrams
PHOENIX — Brittney Griner embarked on a four-day itinerary that would disrupt anyone’s circadian rhythm.
First came the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, where she was decked out in a sharp, black suit that Saturday night. President Biden pointed to her in the audience and said, “Boy, I can hardly wait to see you back on the court.”
Soon she was rushing to catch a flight, landing in Phoenix at 4 a.m. for the start of W.N.B.A. training camp with the Mercury. Then she hustled back east, to New York, for her first Met Gala. She wore a sleek tan suit, and her wife, Cherelle Griner, was in a strapless white gown, both custom outfits by Calvin Klein. They mingled with A-list celebrities that night, but Brittney needed to be back in Phoenix by Tuesday afternoon for more basketball and, she had hoped, a nap.
The sparkling events, time-zone hopping and overall spectacle were overwhelming but perhaps also came as a kind of relief for Brittney Griner, who spent nearly 10 months detained in Russia and returned to the United States in December as a new symbol of hope. Ensnared in a geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow, Griner drew attention not only to herself and to the plight of other foreign detainees but also to the financial disparities facing women in sports that had brought her to Russia in the first place.
On Friday, Griner returned to the court for her first official W.N.B.A. game in 579 days. Before the game, in Los Angeles against the Sparks, Vice President Kamala Harris thanked the Mercury and Sparks players for supporting Griner while she was detained. The league is not the same now, in part because of Griner. The issues her detention spotlighted are not new and are unlikely to be easily resolved. But she has galvanized a potent fan base and sports work force who are both eager to welcome her home and to use this moment to promote change alongside her.
“We have wanted change for a long time, but now we’re really starting to demand it,” Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said. “We’re just getting a little more impatient with that and realizing that it’s an issue where we don’t have the money yet, but pushing so that really, really soon we do have the resources to be treated like the athletes we are.”
Why Brittney Griner Was in Russia
Russian customs officials detained Griner at an airport near Moscow in February 2022 after finding vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage as she returned to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional team that reportedly paid her at least $1 million. She was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, but she was freed in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, in December. The U.S. State Department said that she had been wrongfully detained.
The W.N.B.A., now in its 27th season, has long watched dozens of its players go overseas during each off-season in search of higher pay, though the league has been trying to offer them additional ways to make money stateside. The maximum salary in the W.N.B.A. is about $230,000, and was half as much just a few years ago. Top players like Griner, a seven-time All-Star center, can command hundreds of thousands more from international teams. Many people were not aware of this dynamic until Griner’s detention and expressed shock and frustration on social media and on television shows.
“As much as I would love to, you know, pay my light bill for the love of the game, I can’t,” Griner said last month during her first news conference since she was freed.
The Associated Press reported that 67 of the league’s 144 players still played internationally this off-season, indicative of the strong pull of the opportunity to make additional income. But in light of Griner’s detention and the war in Ukraine, players eschewed the historically lucrative Russian organizations for teams in countries like Italy and Turkey. About 90 players played internationally five years ago.
Collier, 26, who has played for international teams in W.N.B.A. off-seasons, said younger players gain important experience overseas. But she said she doubted she would play abroad again after Griner’s experience and because she wants to spend more time with her daughter, who will turn 1 next Thursday.
‘That’s How You Build Household Names’
W.N.B.A. officials have attributed players’ modest salaries to its historically modest — and perhaps meager — revenue and media attention. Many W.N.B.A. players have become accustomed to entering the league with less media fanfare and to at times playing before far smaller audiences than they experienced in college.
“I’ve been a part of it when I was in college and it was the hottest ticket in the country,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who starred at UConn before becoming the W.N.B.A.’s career leading scorer. She continued: “How do we make the hottest ticket in the country for the best basketball players in the world in the W.N.B.A.? That, to me, it only happens in women’s sports where the adolescents get more attention than the grown-ups.”
Griner, who joined the Mercury in 2013, has been a star since she became known for dunking at Baylor. At her first news conference since returning, Griner pleaded with the unusual swell of reporters to come and cover games during the season, too.
“The league is a league that needs celebrity,” said Candy Lee, a professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at Northwestern. She added: “The league can take advantage of it. The Mercury can take advantage of it.”
The surge in W.N.B.A. interest because of Griner has dovetailed with broader momentum for women’s sports in recent years. The N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball championship game last month shattered records with an average of 9.9 million viewers, according to ESPN.
W.N.B.A. teams will play a record 40 regular-season games this year, and the league signed a multiyear deal with Scripps to televise Friday night games on the network ION. Griner’s first two regular-season games, on Friday in Los Angeles and Sunday in Phoenix against Chicago, will be nationally televised by ESPN. Viewership during the 2022 regular season rose 16 percent over the previous year, according to the league, making it the most-watched season in 14 years.
Flip on the N.B.A. playoffs and you’re likely to spot a W.N.B.A. player, like Candace Parker of the Las Vegas Aces or Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings, featured prominently in a commercial. Puma recently announced the second signature shoe for the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart. Griner, who became the first openly gay athlete signed to Nike in 2014, remains with the brand, a spokesman confirmed, but the company did not answer questions about whether it planned to market her this season.
A few weeks before Griner was detained, W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league had raised $75 million from investors that she planned to use for marketing and revamping the league’s business model.
Collegiate stars like Angel Reese of Louisiana State, Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa are poised to enter the league in the next few years, bringing their dynamic games, name recognition and national television exposure.
“That’s why we’re putting so many marketing dollars behind some of our star players,” Engelbert said. She added: “That’s how you build household names.”
The Travel Debate
Concerns about Griner’s security while traveling since her detention have added to the fiery debate about travel in the W.N.B.A.
Unlike in the N.B.A. or on many top men’s and women’s college teams, W.N.B.A. players fly on commercial airlines to games. It has long been a sore point for players, who have had to sleep in airports or rush to games because of delays. This year, it is widely believed that Griner will need to travel privately, though neither the Mercury nor the W.N.B.A. have disclosed her plans.
“Would definitely like to make all those flights private,” Griner said. “That would be nice. Not just for me and my team, but for the whole league. We all deserve it. We work so hard. We do so much and it would be nice where we finally get to the point where we get to that point, too.”
The W.N.B.A. has said that it cannot afford the tab of over $20 million a season for charter flights, even though some owners might be willing to provide them for their own teams. Charter flights are prohibited in the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players’ union as an unfair competitive advantage. The W.N.B.A. fined the Liberty $500,000 for secretly using charter flights to travel to some games during the 2021 season.
In April, the league announced that it would have charter flights for teams playing on consecutive days during the regular season and for all playoff games. The W.N.B.A. had made exceptions in similar situations previously.
“We’re going to chip away at this as we continue to build this model,” Engelbert said. “Because once you do it, you have to do it essentially for perpetuity, so we want to make sure we’re not putting the financial viability of the league at risk.”
On Thursday, the W.N.B.A. players’ union announced a deal with Priority Pass to give players access to airport lounges, which could provide food, spa treatments and places to sleep. Nneka Ogwumike, the star Los Angeles forward who is president of the players’ union, said in a statement that she hoped other “partners” would see the deal as a “call to action.”
In a statement, Terri Jackson, the union’s executive director, called the deal a “significant step in the right direction.”
‘She Impacts the World’
Vince Kozar, the president of the Mercury, described an ominous cloud over the franchise last season at every practice, media session and game without Griner. Brief video clips that emerged of her in Russia showed her handcuffed or caged. The day Griner was sentenced, Mercury players came together and cried — then had to play a game. “You carried that weight of the uncertainty and the fear,” Kozar said.
It finally, suddenly, parted upon Griner’s release in December. Kozar did not expect Griner to announce immediately whether she would again play in the W.N.B.A. But when she returned to the United States, she said she would play.
Griner may have been the most plugged-in W.N.B.A. player last season. Players from around the league sent her letters, their only means of communicating with her. In letters with Kozar, Griner was not asking about the organization and its going-ons as much as informing him about them.
“It was just a reminder that basketball was one of the things that had been taken away from her, this thing how she impacts the world that’s central to her identity, that so many of her relationships are built around,” Kozar said.
Griner will lead the league in hugs this season. She scribbled autographs and posed for selfies in the tunnel of a preseason game against the Sparks in Phoenix last week. It was her first action since she’d returned. A modest crowd cheered louder than it seemed capable of during Griner’s pregame introduction. Mercury Coach Vanessa Nygaard said chills ran down her spine.
Griner towered over everyone else on the court, securing her first bucket on a quick turnaround a minute into the first quarter. All right, here we go, Griner thought to herself. So much had seemed unfamiliar to her lately. Jet-setting for a living? That’s not her, she said with a laugh. But that first shot, she thought, that felt comfortable.
Jonathan Abrams is a sports reporter for The Times, working on features and general assignment stories. He has covered several N.B.A. finals and the Winter Olympics. @jpdabrams
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What is the WNBA Brittney Griner situation? ›
Brittney Griner: From Russian detainment to playing basketball, again. Brittney Griner was arrested in February 2022 at a Moscow airport on drug-related charges and detained for nearly 10 months, spending much of that time in prison.Does Brittney Griner have a wife? › Who is Brittney Griner's husband? › Did Brittney Griner have a baby? ›
Basically, Glory would provide the womb and a sperm donor would allow for her to be artificially impregnated. What is this? Therefore, technically Brittney Griner has children as she was still married to Glory at the time of concealment. However, she did not give birth to the two children named Ava and Solei.How much was Brittney Griner paid to play in Russia? ›
It was for that very reason that Griner has traveled to Russia to play during the WNBA off-season for the past seven years, where UMMC Ekaterinburg pays the athlete more than $1 million per season.Does Brittney Griner owe child support? ›
Griner may still be considered the legal parent of the children, and thus obligated to pay child support, because the children were conceived during the marriage. Once the issues of parentage, child custody and child support are settled, the only issues left will be alimony and division of the couple's assets.Who pays Brittney Griner? ›
Her incarceration led her to miss the 2022 season. Details: ESPN reports Griner, who was a free agent, signed a one-year, $165,100 contract with the Mercury on Saturday. This will be her 10th season with the Mercury, who drafted her No.How did Brittany and Cherelle Griner meet? ›
2009-2013: Brittney and Cherelle meet
Brittney and Cherelle met for the first time during their tenure as students at Baylor University in Texas, which they attended between 2009 and 2013. "I will never forget the day I met you at Baylor in the sub area!" the WNBA star wrote on Instagram in June 2020.
Brittney Griner is a WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury and an Olympic gold medalist. The 32-year-old native Houstonian was a member of Team USA's 2016 gold medal team during 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and a member of the 2014 WNBA Championship team, Phoenix Mercury, according to her WNBA bio.Why was Brittney Griner's hair shaved? ›
Since Brittney didn't know she was getting out of prison, she opted to cut her hair so she wouldn't suffer damage to her health during the Russian winter, which is one of the deadliest on the planet. "It's very cold there and every time she washed her hair she would freeze," Blagovolina said.
Why is Brittney Griner's hair cut off? ›
Her long dreadlocks were cut short while she was detained. According to ESPN's T.J. Quinn, it was Griner's decision to cut her hair. One of Griner's lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, told Quinn that Griner's hair would freeze when wet as the Russian winter got colder, so she decided to cut it to make life in prison easier.What was Brittney Griner's salary in the US? ›
According to a report from Business Insider, Griner signed for one year and $165,100, which represents a salary decrease of around 32% compared to what she was earning before her detention.Does Brittney Griner have a twin brother? › How tall is Brittney Griner net worth? ›
|Net Worth:||$17 Million|
|Height:||6 ft 7 in (2.05 m)|
|Weight:||93 Kg or 205 Ibs|
Griner returned to the United States in December and soon said she would return to the WNBA in 2023.How many years did Brittney Griner play basketball in Russia? ›
In the 2014–15 and 2015–16 off-seasons, Griner played in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg with teammate Diana Taurasi, winning back-to-back championships.Who is highest paid WNBA player? ›
Who is the highest-paid WNBA player in 2023? Jackie Young of the Aces has an average annual salary of $252,450 and is currently the WNBA's highest-paid player in 2023.Does Brittany Griner pay child support for twins? ›
Brittney Griner ordered to pay child support to Glory Johnson for twins. In the event of a split, should person be forced to pay child support for a kid that is not biologically theirs? 483 people like this.Did Brittney Griner get a scholarship? ›
After graduating in 2009, Griner attended Baylor University on a basketball scholarship, and she quickly became known for both her defense and her offense.Who is Brittney Garner's wife? ›
Where is Brittney Griner net worth? ›
Griner has an estimated net worth of $5 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth.How much money does Brittney Griner make overseas? ›
Mercury center Brittney Griner received a pay raise when she made as much as $1.5 million in a single year in Russia.What is the average WNBA salary? ›
How much do WNBA players make? The average salary for a player in the WNBA for the 2022 season was $102,751, among 151 athletes, according to NBC Connecticut. The average salary for a player for the 2023 season, as of April 2, is $147,745, according to Queen Ballers Club.Did Brittney Griner's wife pass the bar? ›
Cherelle Griner celebrates passing the bar exam with wife Brittney Griner by her side. Cherelle Griner has achieved her goal of becoming a lawyer! She shared the celebratory news with her social media followers in a carousel of photos posted on Friday (April 14).Is Brittney Griner wife a lawyer? ›
Introducing Attorney Cherelle Griner! WNBA star Brittney Griner celebrated her wife Cherelle's major accomplishment after the 30-year-old law student officially became a lawyer over the weekend.Where was Brittney Griner married? ›
On May 8, the two were married at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix. TMZ also revealed Thursday that Johnson-Griner is pregnant with their first child and will miss the 2015 season as a result.Why was Marc Fogel in Russia? ›
Marc Hilliard Fogel is an American schoolteacher who was arrested in August 2021 by Russian authorities for trying to enter Russia with 0.6 ounces (17 g) of medical marijuana. In June 2022, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.Who cut Brittney Griner's hair in Russia? ›
Griner's Russian attorney Maria Blagovolina told ESPN, Griner cut her hair two Sundays ago due to the prison's brutal conditions. Blagovolina added that each time Griner showered, her hair would freeze, which led to her cutting her locks off.What about Brittney Griner's parents? › What do Brittney Griner's tattoos say? ›
It represents Griner being of good mind, speech, and manners. She also has a tattoo of a double-linked female sign near the left side of the hip, which represents her sexuality as a lesbian after she opened on her gender publicly. She's got another tattoo of colorful flowers that covers up her whole left hand.
What's the lowest paid WNBA player? ›
How much do WNBA players earn? The lowest paid player in the WNBA is Kaela Davis with 1,607 dollars and eight players earn less than 10,000 dollars. The average salary for a female WNBA player is 102,751 dollars while last season the average salary for an NBA player was around 8.5 million dollars.How much is Brittney Griner contract with Nike? ›
She made $221,450 during the 2021-2022 season. According to sources, she will be making approximately $227,900 for the 2022-2023 season. What is this? Apart from this, she has also signed a $1 million contract with Nike.Who sponsors Brittney Griner? ›
Griner came out as a lesbian in an interview in February 2013. She has been a trailblazer for the LGBTQ community and her coming out paved the way for many future athletes to do the same. She signed an endorsement deal with Nike in 2013 becoming the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by the apparel giant.How big is Brittney Griner? ›
Griner is one of the tallest players in WNBA history at 6-9. Only three players in league history have a higher recorded height: The late Margo Dydek (7-2), Bernadett Hatar (6-10) and Han Xu (6-10). That makes Griner the second-tallest active player in the WNBA at the moment, behind only Han.Has the WNBA ever made a profit? ›
Since there has been minimal growth since its birth, many wonder if the league brings in any money. The answer to that question is no. Back in 2018, current NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke on the league's financial outlook. He cited that the WNBA has never once turned a profit.How long is Brittney Griner married? ›
Brittney marked the pair's one-year wedding anniversary with a gushing Instagram tribute to her wife.How much does Lebron make a year? › Why is WNBA Brittney Griner detained? ›
Here is a full timeline of Griner's situation: Feb. 17: Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when the Russian Federal Customs Service discovered vape cartridges containing marijuana concentrate hashish oil in her luggage.What will most likely happen to Brittney Griner? ›
Griner faces serious charges against him that carry a possible sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison, because "Russia has, and has had for many decades, a zero-tolerance attitude toward narcotic substances, so it's a serious crime," William E. Butler, a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law, told CNN.Why doesn t Brittney Griner play for WNBA? ›
Brittney Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia in connection with a drug investigation. She had been there playing for the professional basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the W.N.B.A. off-season.
Why did Brittney Griner cut her hair? ›
According to ESPN's T.J. Quinn, it was Griner's decision to cut her hair. One of Griner's lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, told Quinn that Griner's hair would freeze when wet as the Russian winter got colder, so she decided to cut it to make life in prison easier.How much do WNBA players make? ›
How much do WNBA players make? The average salary for a player in the WNBA for the 2022 season was $102,751, among 151 athletes, according to NBC Connecticut. The average salary for a player for the 2023 season, as of April 2, is $147,745, according to Queen Ballers Club.How many people showed up for Brittney Griner? ›
Brittney Griner is home, more than 10,000 fans showed up for her first game since being freed from Russia and the Vice President was in the house.What did Brittney Griner say about the US? ›
Brittney Griner says she'll 'never go overseas' again unless it's to play for the U.S. in the Olympics. “Hands down, no one should be in any of the conditions that I went through or that they're going through,” the WNBA star said of Americans being wrongfully detained in Russia.Why does Brittney Griner need to fly private? ›
Griner will need to fly privately due to security concerns, according to reports, which could create problems across the league. Would the recognizable, 6-foot-9 center fly by herself, away from the Mercury? Would the Mercury charter as a team, giving Phoenix a clear competitive advantage?Could Brittany Griner play in NBA? ›
And even then, she would encounter other hurdles, such as the speed and quickness possessed by NBA guards. Griner is a low-post player, which means size and strength would rule the day. In the NBA, she would be undersized for a center and under-skilled as a forward.How much did WNBA player Brittney Griner get paid? ›
Brittney Griner signed a 1 year / $165,100 contract with the Phoenix Mercury, including $165,100 guaranteed, and an annual average salary of $165,100. In 2023, Griner will earn a base salary of $165,100, while carrying a cap hit of $165,100.
The divorce they went through after the pregnancy left Johnson alone to take care of the twin girls who were 16 weeks premature. She was also bedridden for a bit during her pregnancy. Johnson said that she should hate Griner for what she put her through.