Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia until at least May 19 casts light on WNBA overseas travel

(Video by Ryan Blank/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia on drug charges, which has been extended at least until May 19, the Russian state news agency TASS reported Thursday, has cast a light on a number of issues that routinely go unnoticed: the inequity in earnings between the best men and women’s basketball players; the repercussions of being arrested in a foreign country and the performance-based reasons that drive the players overseas, something that is rarely talked about.

It’s hard to improve in the WNBA when the season lasts just four months, half as long as an NBA schedule. Players cannot get better while sidelined from competition for months at a time. Players need to work tirelessly to improve their craft and traveling overseas provides that opportunity.

“You can’t be an elite athlete in a sport and you only play it one-third of the year. That’s not you have to be perfecting that sport, working on it and getting better and staying sharp,” WNBA agent Mike Cound said.

Top-level talent like Courtney Vandersloot, Sue Bird and Griner’s teammate Diana Taurasi have all played in Russia, lured there by the promise of honing their skills and improving their financial security.

Brittney Griner, left, and Diana Taurasi, flashed their gold medals from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Both Phoenix Mercury players have played in Russia. (File photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Bird and Taurasi played in 2006 for the Russian team Dynamo Kursk, which was owned by Shabtai Kalmanovich, a former KGB spy who was assassinated in 2009. The high level of competition allowed them to polish their games and Kalmanovich rewarded their skill level above and beyond what the WNBA was able to provide.

According to a 2019 story in SB Nation, Kalmanovich offered contracts between $400,000 to $1 million, including bonuses. There were other perks. Kalmanovich also gave Bird and Taurasi a mansion to share, first-class flights and the use of his credit card.

“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade,” Taurasi told SB Nation.

Taurasi accepted $1.5 million by UMMC Ekaterinburg, not to play with her WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury in 2015 because her Russian employers wanted her to be fresh for their season.

While Taurasi’s situation was extreme, Cound argues that the opportunity to play overseas is good for business in the WNBA in the long run.

“That’s an income opportunity that very, very few players have and they take it,” Cound said. “They’re not being forced to play there.”

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Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, players haven’t been able to stay as sharp as they would like this offseason. In addition to Griner, other players were in Russia when the invasion began in February. But everyone else was able to get out of the country, with Cound’s assistance. Griner was arrested upon arriving in Moscow for the season when vape cartridges containing hashish oil were allegedly found in her luggage.

The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is among those who have taken up her cause. Clinton tweeted out Wednesday, “Free Brittney.”

Cound said, “I personally view this as if my son was over there. It’s mostly just having the confidence to tell players it’s OK. Go ahead.”

If the Russian teams won’t help them leave, “you’re coming home anyway,” Cound said. “We’re not asking permission. And we’ll take care of any problems that come from that.”

A new CBA agreement will increase the cash compensation to more than half-a-million dollars for top players and improve travel conditions. In light of the agreement, some have questioned whether there is a need to go overseas during the offseason to play – unless they see it as the only avenue to improve.

Former Phoenix Mercury assistant coach Chasity Melvin said she expects there to be dialogue about increasing the length of the WNBA season, which might make it less necessary to play during what would be a shortened offseason.

“I do think that will ignite some serious conversations about the duration of our league,” Melvin said. “Either making it longer, maybe increasing the salaries or doing different things where you can pay the players to have a six month season or even something longer. It coincides where they don’t have to go overseas, or make a choice of which league am I going to play?”

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.

Ryan Blank Rye-an Blank
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Ryan Blank expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Blank has done play-by-play broadcasts for the St. Joseph Mustangs and is interning with Varsity Sports Show and Sun Devil Athletics.