WNBA players say "nyet" to playing in Russia in the off-season since detention of Brittney Griner

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Almost a dozen WNBA players played in Russia during the off-season last winter. This year none will do so. The detention of Brittney Griner has affected how they look at playing in Russia, even if they make millions of dollars doing it.

The money isn’t worth the risk, they say. Between the detention of Griner and Putin’s invasion into Ukraine, top WNBA players are opting to play for other countries overseas. Brittney Griner, a player for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained in Russia in February when a vape canister of cannabis oil was discovered in her luggage at a Russian airport. She claimed it was there due to oversight during packing and that she had a letter from her doctor about her prescription for it for pain but a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison for drug trafficking. The Russians don’t play around. Biden demanded her release but we all know that no one listens to Joe Biden, especially Putin. There may or may not be a prisoner swap being negotiated for her release, along with former Marine Paul Whelan, also being detained in a Russian prison.

I suspect the reason the other WNBA players are now deciding to play for other countries isn’t so much out of fear for their own safety as it is to show support for Griner. They have all played in Russia for several years and haven’t had any problems. In fact, they talk about what a great experience it is.

“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” said Breanna Stewart, a Griner teammate on the Russian team that paid the duo millions. “I think that, you know, now, people want to go overseas and if the money is not much different, they want to be in a better place.”

WNBA players don’t have a problem taking millions of dollars and the perks and benefits that go along with their contracts from Communist Russia. The Communist Russians are willing to pay them and keep them coming back. The problem was that Griner had a drug in her possession that is illegal in Russia. So, she was arrested and imprisoned, as you would expect. The Kremlin hates Americans. Putin is relishing having Americans held in Russian prisons. Why are Americans so naive? In a foreign country, you are expected to obey their laws, even sports stars. If they want to sell their souls for paychecks from a communist country, that’s their business, but don’t be surprised when their luck changes. Putin has always been a bad guy, his behavior didn’t just suddenly harden when he invaded Ukraine or when Griner was detained and put on trial.

The American players make salaries that can exceed $1 million in Russia, nearly quadruple the base salary of top WNBA players, plus the resources and amenities teams offered them.

Now, Stewart and other WNBA All-Stars, including Jonquel Jones and the Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot — who also have made millions of dollars playing in Russia — are going elsewhere this winter. All three played for Ekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Griner. That club won five EuroLeague titles in the past eight seasons and has been dominant for nearly two decades with former greats DeLisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi playing there.

After the World Cup tournament, Stewart is going to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. Top players can make a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, much less than their Russian salaries. Playing in Turkey also allows Stewart to be closer to her wife’s family in Spain.

“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better off-the-court experience, and just continue to appreciate other countries,” Stewart said.

Like Stewart, Vandersloot also isn’t headed back to Russia, choosing to play in Hungary where she obtained citizenship in 2016.

“I am Hungarian. I thought it would be special since I haven’t played there since I got the citizenship,” Vandersloot said.

The 33-year-old guard said a lot would have to change before she’d ever consider going back to Russia to play even though she has many fond memories of the Russian people.

“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and made such strong relationships with those people, I would never close the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”

Jones will be joining Stewart in Turkey, playing for Mersin. The 6-foot-6 Jones said she would consider going back to Russia if things change politically and Griner was back in the U.S.

It seems to me that they should be grateful for salaries of “only” a few hundred thousand dollars. The WNBA isn’t very popular in the United States, which is why players don’t make NBA kind of salaries. The NBA also has their own preferred communist country piggybank, China. They don’t mind as long as the checks clear the bank. The NBA makes lots of money for Communist China. Both the players and the Chinese officials look at it as a win-win. Sorry, Uyghurs.

The WNBA has also been trying to make staying home in the offseason a better option for players. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals that top players could make up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing agreements and award bonuses. While only a select few players could reach that amount, roughly a dozen have decided to take league marketing agreements this offseason.

WNBA had its most-watched regular season, and regular season game going into the playoffs, since 2008 last month. Storm-Aces WNBA regular season game averaged a 0.52 rating and 852,000 viewers. The previous high was 804,000 for Mercury-Lynx a decade ago. They can’t expect to have multi-million dollar contracts like NBA players with audience numbers like that.