No, not Brittney Spears. Though a good portion of America was enraptured with Spears’ emancipation from her father, I am talking about a different Brittney. I’m referring to Brittney Griner, arguably one of the best to ever play collegiate and professional basketball. Brittney Griner is currently being held in jail in Russia for allegedly having hashish oil in her possession. She was detained one week prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
I want to make clear that her incarceration is not her fault. Griner’s incarceration is an attempt by the Russian government to embarrass the United States. Griner’s impetus for entering Russia was primarily fueled by basketball and the salary she earns playing outside of the United States. If she was paid what she and her fellow WNBA peers deserve there would be no need for her to play more than one professional season of basketball per year. Despite the equitable pay success for the US women’s national soccer team the disparity between the WNBA and NBA still exists.
Making a good living playing women’s basketball is not always viable in the US. If such a thing as equal pay existed in the United States, professional female athletes would not have to get a second (sometimes third) job(s) in the off-season. Griner makes a little over $200K/year playing for the WNBA but in Russia she makes over $1 million. Due to new contract agreements in the WNBA in 2020 the average salary for a player finally went over $100K/year. These salaries pale in comparison to their male counterparts in the NBA. When Griner was drafted number one overall in the WNBA 2013 draft, her salary was less than $50K. Her NBA peer signed a contract that same year in the millions. Griner went to China to play in the off-season where her salary was ten times her American salary.
She is not unlike most professional female athletes. Even after the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1999 they came home to play in a professional league that paid some of them in the $30K range. Globally, women are consistently paid at lower rates than men and there are very few places that provide protection at the national level for women’s rights to equal pay. Currently there are only 12 countries that have legal rights for women that protect their ability to earn income. Iceland led the way in 2018 mandating that women be paid the same as men and required companies to demonstrate compliance or face fines. The US is well behind Iceland and its pay disparity is in line with far poorer countries. In the US, on average women make 25% less than their male counterparts. For women of color, non-native English speakers, Queer, poor, differently abled, less educated, and non-citizens this disparity can increase to over 50%.
The secondary status of Black people in America has obviously been a complicated past steeped in racism. The surge of violence against Black Americans by law enforcement and regular citizens along with the lack of justice for the violence is continued evidence for the United States’ indifference to Black life. This is best exemplified by the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor’s 2020 murder while she slept and was shot due to illegal entry by law enforcement. Brittney Griner’s Blackness serves to lower her status in society more than her potential to be elevated as a professional athlete. Despite the increased conversations around racial injustice and inequity in the United States over the last two years the lack of public outcry and government intervention in Griner’s detention is unfortunately not surprising.
The former Soviet Union once served as an alternative physical and ideological space for Black people disenfranchised and disillusioned with democracy. Paul Robeson’s famous statement on the possibility of global Black agency through the Soviet Union would never be fulfilled. Griner’s higher salary in Russia compared to the United States is not evidence of agency but rather a demonstration of the continued impact of sexism and racism on salary disparity in the United States. But more importantly, her detention in Russia and the lack of direct US intervention reinforces the continued low status of Black people in the US and abroad.
The awareness of race and racism in Europe has been heightened in recent months with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The disparity in treatment of white Ukrainians and Africans fleeing the conflict area demonstrates that Europe no longer holds the same symbolic value as a safe haven for Black people as it did during the mid-20th Century. Europe was the place where Pan-Africanism and the Negritude Movement were birthed and where Black Americans sought life experiences of equality. Griner and her fellow athletes may have initially perceived Europe and Russia as safe havens for financial and social parity, but Griner’s detainment demonstrates her racialized positionality. What we see with Briner’s detainment by Russia and the United States’ unwillingness to make a firm commitment to her release is further confirmation of the devaluation of Blackness by both Europe and the United States.
Griner is openly lesbian. Russia has openly told the world that their country does not accept anyone who is LGBTQ or those who support them. The 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia went against Olympic policy by actively banning Queer athletes from publicly declaring their sexual orientation during the games. The United States was complicit in its support of Russian anti-Queer policies by its decision not to boycott the Games nor openly speak out against it as pointed out by the work of Ann Travers and Mary Shearman. Heather Sykes’s work on “Queer complicity and anti-colonialism” demonstrates how sporting events like the Olympics are part of globalizing and empire building projects that Queer athletes like Griner must contend with. Griner went to a country where she knew her very existence as a lesbian could put her in serious danger. Griner’s positionality as Black, female, and Queer are directly implicated in this forced decision-making to play and live in an openly anti-Queer country.
In the US, Title IX has led to some progress on equity for women in sports within the United States, but the law’s impact does not extend beyond the borders of the United States. The disparity in salary at the professional level, not protected by Title IX, creates the pathway for athletes like Griner to have to leave the US and enter into countries with less tolerance on racism, sexism, and gender equity. Title IX offers protection for women (mostly to the benefit of white heterosexual women) but does not offer protection for women of color who in addition are also queer. The US is not a real safe haven LGBTQ people, as anti-Queer and anti-Trans forces have increased legislation in states like Florida prohibiting trans-women from competing alongside cis-gendered women.
So why would Griner put herself in a situation to play in a country as dangerous as Russia? Salary. Like so many women around the world, Griner puts herself in dangerous and risky situations to earn a living. The raw number far exceeds what many of us will ever make, but it is representative of what women globally must endure to make a living. Women globally endure low pay compared to male peers, more dangerous work conditions and sexual assault by superiors every day. The work of Alexander and Pareñas in the Caribbean and the Philippines respectively demonstrates the global significance of women’s labor in tourism and domestic sphere fuel nations and global capitalist enterprises reliant on the bodies of women to generate wealth and power. Griner’s abilities similarly funds large global capital enterprises like the WNBA, the Olympics, and professional leagues in Europe. High salary, high status, and high-ranking positions do not protect women from abuse and mistreatment.
Griner has also had to fend off attacks on her biological identity. In sport, when a woman excels and displays physical power and strength they run into white/Western conceptions of beauty and biological norms. Their very personhood gets called into question. South African World Champion 800m runner Caster Semenya has struggled throughout her career for high level sponsorships despite her success. Semenya since her rise to the world stage has been forced to undergo invasive body examinations and answer publicly to news media as to whether she is a man or a woman. Semenya has been referred to as a “man” by American journalists which is incorrectly backed up by the IAAF’s ability to regulate what it means to be a woman. The global discourse doubting Semenya’s identity has had a significant negative financial impact on her earning potential as a world class runner. Griner can’t win for losing. She is an incredible basketball player. She can dunk. She is powerful and strong. Her physique is a testament to the dedication to her craft. When men do this in sports they become superheroes and are rewarded materially for it. When women do this they are “cheaters” or “not women” and rarely materially rewarded at the same level as their male peers. Women like Griner are seldom paid or even courted by major corporations at the same level as the men. Griner is the first openly lesbian athlete to get a deal with Nike but her $1 million deal falls far below her male peers in the NBA. Steph Curry of the NBA makes around $40 million in sponsorships.
The American government continues to drag its feet on supporting Brittney Griner and demanding her immediate release. The US government’s handling of this situation reflects its historical consideration of marginalized members of society. Griner is on her own. It is unlikely that her nation will step forward and speak up on her behalf in clear and certain terms that she is being held illegally for political reasons. If Russia sought more action from the United States they should have picked someone less Black, less Queer, and less female. Maybe the US would have jumped into action and risked a military response to protect that person. At minimum it would be a national conversation.
Acknowledgement: I am thankful to Alex Cummings and the editorial staff at Tropics of Meta for invaluable feedback and suggestions. I also with to thank Stan Thangaraj for his support as well as insightful and helpful corrections that helped an idea become a manuscript.
Gabby M.H. Yearwood is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Managing Faculty Director for the Center for Civil Rights and Racial Justice in the Law School at the University Pittsburgh. He is a socio-cultural anthropologist earning his Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin in Anthropology focusing in Black Diaspora Studies and Masculinity. His research interests include the social constructions of race and racism, masculinity, gender, sex, Black Feminist and Black Queer theory, anthropology of sport and Black Diaspora. Dr. Yearwood holds a secondary appointment with the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at Pitt. Dr. Yearwood is also a teaching member of the Pitt Prison Education Project.