Basketball star Brittney Griner’s politically charged entanglement in Russia may give other athletes pause when pursuing contracts in authoritarian states, though sports observers say economic need is what drives them to seek opportunities abroad in the first place.
And unless that changes, players being offered a better opportunity somewhere else may be tempted to pursue it, despite the risks.
Griner, a 31-year-old WNBA star, had been heading to Russia to play basketball each winter — reportedly banking a $1-million US paycheque, more than quadruple what she made back home.
Matt Slan, the founder and CEO of Slan Sports Management, a Toronto-based company representing basketball players, told CBC News that Griner’s story seems likely to serve as “a harsh warning signal” to other athletes, but not necessarily a total deterrent to playing in similar authoritarian jurisdictions.
In Russia this week, Griner was sentenced to spend nine years in prison on drug possession charges. The highest levels of the US government say they are actively fighting for her release.
As wealthy states from Russia to China and Saudi Arabia look to expand their footprints in professional sports, the lure of high salaries is likely to continue drawing some athletes from democracies, business observers said, despite Griner’s imprisonment.
Griner’s award came in concert with a conviction for drug possession and smuggling — relating to vape cartridges containing cannabis oil found her luggage. She told a Russian court she inadvertently packed them.
“It’s extremely unfortunate what’s happening to Ms. Griner,” said Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sport management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who views her as being “collateral damage” in a broader tensions between Russia and the US
Naraine said her case has been closely watched in the sports world — and its implications have been sinking in.
“This is something that’s been on the minds of athletes,” he said.
Better money abroad, more roster spots
Athletes looking to play in leagues far from home are usually doing so because of the paycheques, observers said.
That was the case for Griner, who, like other WNBA players, went to Russia to supplement her income.
Naraine said this reality sends athletes in search of better opportunities, and not just in Russia.
“There is a reason professional women’s basketball players have to go play in Australia, Russia, Lithuania, you name it,” he said.
This stands in stark contrast to many of their male counterparts in the NBA, he added, as they make far more money at home.
Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said that’s exactly why Griner played in Russia.
“The reality is that she’s over there because of a gender issue — pay equity,” Ogwuimike told ABC’s Good Morning Americaearlier this year, noting that she, too, had played basketball in Russia.
As of Friday, reports indicate Moscow remains open to discussing a proposed prisoner swap that would bring Griner and another imprisoned American home, in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer.
But it’s not clear if, or when, that will happen.
When it comes to the forces leading athletes to go abroad, Slan said another factor is that the big leagues in North America only have so many roster spots.
That means athletes may have to make tough choices in order to pursue their career.
“There are 144 WNBA roster spots, and 510 NBA roster spots,” he said. “Outside of these top leagues, some of the top paying teams in the world reside in countries like China and Russia.”
And it’s not just the game of basketball that is offering more lucrative opportunities.
“China is one of those jurisdictions where athletes go to play in order to get their salaries to a place where they can have a comfortable living,” said Brock University’s Naraine, noting there are opportunities for Canadians playing hockey and other sports there.
The wider world outside sports
Slan, whose company has seen clients play in 40 countries around the world, said he looks at the wider context when weighing international options for clients.
“I try to fully prepare my clients for every situation,” he explained, and assessing risks is part of that process.
Though, as his clients have learned, the unexpected can happen.
“I had clients playing in Ukraine last season, just before the Russian invasion,” said Slan.
“While prior to the season, there was no way to understand that a Russian invasion was imminent, I was able to guide my clients safely out of the country and out of harm’s way.”
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor emeritus of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., said the Griner case may drive athletes to consider more opportunities in leagues operating in democratic nations.
“First, if I were a player agent, I would use all my powers of persuasion to keep them from playing in Russia and I would warn them about playing in other authoritarian countries,” said Zimbalist via email. “Second, leagues in democratic countries will become more attractive.”
Slan concurs — and said safety and economic stability are key factors that must be weighed when athletes make a decision about where to play.
“Countries like Germany and France have become more appealing,” said Slan. “Maybe they don’t pay as much as some other leagues, but they are safe and players’ salaries come on time. There’s value in that.”