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What Brittney Griner's detention in Russia tells us about basketball's gender pay gap

Basketball star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since February, when vape cartridges containing hashish oil were allegedly found in her luggage.

"The reality is, she's over there because of a gender issue — pay inequity," said Nneka Ogwumike, the head of the WNBA players union, in an interview Tuesday with ABC's Good Morning America.

She noted that Griner was in Russia in the first place because of the money. "We go over there to supplement our incomes, and quite frankly, we go over there to maintain our game," she said.

The WNBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The gender pay gap in America is nothing new. In 2020, annual earnings for women in the U.S. were just 82.3% of what men earned. But in the WNBA, the disparity is especially acute.

The average NBA salary this season is about $5.4 million, compared with about $120,600 for the WNBA. The WNBA season is shorter — 36 games versus 82 in the NBA. But the average annual salaries mean an NBA player makes 44 times what the average WNBA player makes.

The gap was on display at this week's WNBA draft

This week's WNBA draft offered just the latest example of the pay gap. The No. 1 pick was University of Kentucky star Rhyne Howard, selected by the Atlanta Dream. The shooting guard will be paid according to the league's rookie pay scale, which dictates that the first four picks in this year's draft receive three-year contracts worth $226,668.

That means in her first three seasons, Howard will make an average salary of $75,556.

The NBA's 2022 draft won't take place until June, but the top pick in last year's draft was Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, selected by the Detroit Pistons. He signed a four-year contract with the Pistons for $45.6 million, with an average annual salary of $11.4 million, according to Spotrac, which tracks player contracts.

In other words, Cunningham's rookie salary in the NBA is 150 times that of Howard's in the WNBA.

And it's not just the rookies. Even the WNBA's highest-paid players aren't making particularly lofty sums. Only 14 players in the league make $200,000 or more, according to Spotrac data. Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury and the Seattle Storm's Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart reportedly make the most, at $228,094.

NBA salaries are on a whole other level. The league's top-paid players, like Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, will be paid more than $45 million this year.

WNBA players go overseas to earn extra money

The pay situation has been pushing players overseas for years.

Liz Cambage, an Australian hoopster, says she makes 5 to 8 times more in the overseas leagues than she does in the WNBA. That economic reality has pushed her to sit out five seasons of WNBA play for more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

"It's hard when you have 'the best league in the world,' but we're not treated like the best athletes in the world," she told ESPN in February.

She also said that due to the current collective bargaining agreement between players and the league, her team, the Los Angeles Sparks, can't pay to fly her in first class, even though she says at 6 foot 8, she doesn't fit into coach seats: "The fact that I have to pay to upgrade my flight so I can get to work and perform, it's crazy to me. ... I'd like to see that loosened up a bit," and maximum salary caps go up.

Ogwumike, the players union president, has played in Russia, China and Poland in addition to the WNBA. She says players are treated well when they moonlight abroad, "but we don't want to feel as though we have to go over there to get what we want to get at home."

In Russia, Griner plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by an Uzbek-born oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It's not clear how much Griner's salary was at Ekaterinburg, but in 2015, the team paid Diana Taurasi nearly $1.5 million per season as she sat out of the WNBA. "[T]his is my profession. Why shouldn't I try to make the most money I can?" Taurasi told The New York Times.

Candace Parker, her teammate at Ekaterinburg, agreed. "I mean, people look at this as our off-season, but this is our season, and the WNBA is our off-season. This is where you take care of your family," she told the Times.

One team was fined for treating players too well

One recent episode illustrates the disparity between the WNBA and the NBA.

New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai was recently in hot water with the league for taking the team's players on an R&R trip to Napa Valley over Labor Day weekend, as well as providing charter flights for the team for the second half of the season, as Sports Illustrated reported.

Tsai is a co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. He also owns the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.

"Our ownership is freaking amazing. They treat us just like they treat the NBA team," player Jazmine Jones told reporters about the Napa trip. "It was a great experience and I'm super grateful and thankful for them."

But the charter flights — the norm in the NBA — and Napa trip were a violation of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players. For the infractions, the Liberty were threatened with losing draft picks and even termination of the franchise, SI reported. The team was eventually fined $500,000 by the WNBA.

A push for better pay and conditions in the WNBA

There's a movement afoot to recognize and fully embrace the money-making potential in women's sports — and compensate female athletes appropriately.

In February, U.S. Soccer agreed to pay $22 million in back pay to members of the U.S. women's national soccer team as part of a settlement over the team's equal pay lawsuit.

After an uproar a year ago about unequal facilities for the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, the NCAA launched an investigation into the disparities and committed to making some changes. One of those changes: The women's tournament is finally allowed to use "March Madness" branding, which had previously been reserved for the men, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

The tussle over charter flights has intensified scrutiny on the WNBA.

"What a joke," tweeted Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu, about the league's fine of the Liberty.

The players union responded to the league's decision by saying: "Fining the teams for standing up for equity, standing up for the players, harkens back to a league that fined the players for standing up for social justice."

For many players and fans — and some of the league's newer owners — the episode is evidence that perhaps the 2-year-old collective bargaining agreement needs more work.

After all, even the new agreement holds that minimum salaries in the WNBA for those with less than two years in the league is just $60,471, while those with three-plus make at least $72,141.

With salaries like that, WNBA players won't stop heading abroad anytime soon. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.