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As one of the most talented WNBA players is held in Russia awaiting trial, the near-total public silence surrounding her detention has drawn confusion and scrutiny.
What we know is this: The two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is being held on drug-smuggling charges that could put her in prison for up to 10 years. Notably, some question whether the allegations are true, and whether the US government is doing enough to bring her home in the middle of a global crisis.
Griner, a Black queer woman, isn’t the first American to be detained in Russia. But her predicament stands out for how it’s directed fresh attention not only to the fact that US society undervalues professional women’s basketball but also to the ways that LGBTQ people in the US and Russia are differently marginalized.
The Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot’s plea was among the poignant moments that the Will Smith-Chris Rock debacle overshadowed on Sunday. After accepting the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for “Queen of Basketball,” a movie that charts the women’s basketball Hall of Famer Lusia Harris, Proudfoot implored President Joe Biden to “bring Brittney Griner home.”
It’s a sentiment that many might feel privately, but they probably don’t know what to do with it publicly. The basketball legend Lisa Leslie recently explained on the “I Am Athlete” podcast that she’s been instructed not to make a “big fuss” over Griner’s arrest.
“What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation, in the war,” Leslie said in the interview. “To make it like it’s not that important or don’t make it where we’re like, ‘Free Brittney,’ and we start this campaign and then it becomes something that they can use.”
Even with the geopolitical complexities, it’s important not to look away from the predicament, which intersects with issues of both gender and sexual identity in meaningful ways. As Aileen Gallagher, a journalism professor at Syracuse University, put it to CNN, from sports to politics to affinity and identity, “this story has everything we’re talking about in the US at this moment.”
Here’s a look at these issues in turn:
The salary gap
Like a number of WNBA athletes, Griner doesn’t play for just one team. She’s a center for the Phoenix Mercury, but since 2014, she’s spent the WNBA’s off-season playing for a Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. The reason: Overseas, she makes more money – much more.
Per the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the average cash compensation for players hovers around $130,000. The league says that its top players can earn “in excess of $500,000” – roughly three times what they could earn under the previous CBA.
Still, these figures are dwarfed by the more than $1 million that players of Griner’s talent can earn in Russia, and by the multi-millions that even rookie NBA players can make.
This disparity exemplifies a wider problem: Since the WNBA’s creation in 1996 – half a century after the NBA was founded – US society has treated professional women’s basketball as an inferior sport.
“In this country, we’ve sort of decided that sports are for men,” said Kim Crowder, a consultant whose work focuses on diversity and equality. “You see that in the creation of the WNBA – look at how long it came after the NBA was created – and in pay disparities. Both of these things tell us a lot about who ‘deserves’ to be seen and treated in the world of professional basketball as a professional, as best in class.”
Crowder went on, saying that the issue isn’t just the lack of money; it’s also the lack of respect.
“If you’ve been to a WNBA game and observed how these women hustle, then you go, ‘These are athletes. These are people who’ve trained their whole lives for this sport. Why aren’t they being recognized in the same way? Why aren’t they being championed in the same way?’” Crowder said.
Jemele Hill, a contributing writer at The Atlantic who’s joining CNN+ in May to co-host a weekly show with Cari Champion, echoed some of these sentiments in a recent story.
“Russia wouldn’t be a tantalizing option for America’s best women’s basketball players if they could earn more at home and be treated with the same professional respect as NBA players,” Hill wrote earlier this month.
She then added, trenchantly, “It is damning that teams in oppressive countries such as Russia and China – another opportune marketplace for women’s basketball players – place a higher value on players such as Griner than the teams in her own country do.”
Damning, very definitely. But also, given history, unsurprising.
Anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the US
That Griner has long been an advocate for LGBTQ people – she’s donated thousands of dollars to support an LGBTQ youth center and been the grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade – might call to mind the worrying state of the community’s rights in the US.
For instance, on Wednesday, just one day before the observance of International Transgender Day of Visibility, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona signed into law two bills that target transgender youths. One of the laws scales back minors’ access to gender-affirming health care; the other bans transgender women and girls from competing on women’s and girls’ teams at all public schools and some private schools.
Republican lawmakers in Arizona aren’t the only ones consciously deciding to pick fights with transgender children. So far this year, GOP governors in Oklahoma, Iowa and South Dakota have signed into law bills establishing similar sports bans. And in 2021, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia enacted comparable bans.
As I explored in a story earlier this month, such maneuvering is part of a much broader Republican-led movement to undermine the rights and status of LGBTQ Americans, particularly transgender children.
For that story, the UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler laid out the effects of the above political machinations.
“We’re talking about kids who already feel themselves to be very different, who are trying to come to terms with their embodiment and their lived sense of who they are and what their gender might be,” Butler said. “This is an enormously vulnerable time for kids. They need support. They need room to be able to explore their feelings and to be able to speak freely about their gender and their sense of their own reality. They need to be able to communicate all that to others without fear of reproach, stigmatization, exclusion, discrimination or violence.”
The ongoing attacks on LGBTQ Americans only pull into focus the value of Griner’s advocacy.
Homophobia in Russia
Griner’s country of detention matters, too. Russia has long been hostile to LGBTQ people like the beloved WNBA player, and things seem to be on the brink of getting worse.
Last month, the Russian Ministry of Justice tried unsuccessfully to shut down the Russian LGBT Network, one of the country’s most significant gay-rights groups, for supposedly spreading “LGBT views” and challenging “traditional values.”
In 2019, the Network said that some 40 people were detained and two killed during a government-sanctioned “anti-gay purge” in Chechnya. (The 2020 documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” shines a light on the mass persecution of LGBTQ people in the republic.)
And maybe most infamously, in 2013, Russia passed a “gay propaganda” law that prohibits distributing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Russia’s discriminatory law weaponizes the language of care and protection against an already-marginalized group.
“The gay propaganda law came out of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s really hard conservative turn after 2011 and 2012, when the democratic opposition mobilized street demonstrations against him and he started to pick off various parts of the democratic opposition, starting with feminists and then moving onto LGBTQ communities,” the Oxford University Russian history professor Dan Healey told CNN.
Healey, the author of the 2017 book “Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi,” noted further that, in Russia, fear of anti-LGBTQ oppression has grown since the country’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“Putin said something like, ‘We have internal enemies – people who aren’t supporting us in this war – and these people have to be purged,’” said Healey. “That was the language Putin used. It was right back to the vocabulary of Stalinists. A lot of LGBTQ people noticed that. If they hadn’t already been packing their bags, they started to do so then.”
It’s too early to tell how Griner’s sexual identity might affect her journey through the Russian legal system. Even so, the country’s past and present treatment of LGBTQ people makes her troubles feel all the more acute.
Griner’s detention comes at a time when crises everywhere are escalating. But the WNBA star’s story is just as deserving of focus.