W.N.B.A. Stars to Head Overseas Despite Griner’s Arrest in Russia

As the W.N.B.A. star Jonquel Jones looked ahead to the off-season this year, she couldn’t help but think about her friend Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February after customs officials arrested her at an airport near Moscow.

“Her not being with us, her not being with her team and the W.N.B.A., her family not being able to see her,” Jones said. “Just her being over there and understanding that it could have easily been somebody else on our team and just kind of feeling the weight of that.

“When you’re so close to that person it’s a little bit different.”

Griner, like Jones, had been in Russia during the W.N.B.A. off-season to supplement her relatively modest salary by playing for some of the highest-paying women’s basketball teams in the world. But for the upcoming off-season, Jones, 28, signed with a Turkish team instead.

“What would make me feel comfortable about going back to Russia?” Jones said. “B.G. being home, first and foremost. U.S.A. and Russia relations being better. The war in Ukraine being over with.”

Griner, left, during the 2021 EuroLeague semifinal. Her detention has essentially removed Russia as a country W.N.B.A. players are considering for their off-season teams. Credit…Erdem Sahin/EPA, via Shutterstock

Playing overseas remains extremely popular for W.N.B.A. players seeking to earn more money or gain more pro experience, but several agents and players told The New York Times that, because of Griner’s ordeal and the war, they did not know of anyone who would be playing in Russia this off-season. The W.N.B.A. said it did not have a complete list of players going abroad because its playoffs are underway.

The coronavirus pandemic had already winnowed overseas opportunities for W.N.B.A. players in virus-conscious countries like China and South Korea before the war in Ukraine and Griner’s detention made Russia essentially off limits, too. Players are still opting to go places like Turkey, Israel, Spain, Italy and France.

“There’s always going to be some risk involved with being in a foreign country, but there’s risks in your own country as well,” said Jones, who has Bahamian and Bosnian citizenship. “We have a very short or small window to make the type of money that we’re making overseas, so we have to make sure we capitalize on that.”

This year’s decision about playing overseas is more fraught because of Griner’s detention, but the personal and financial pressures that have pushed players abroad for years persist. There are political and safety concerns in some parts of the world, but some players need the money, and others would find it hard to pass up a payday that can significantly increase their yearly earnings. For others, going overseas provides extra time to hone one’s craft, and playing time that isn’t available in the W.N.B.A., which has just 144 roster slots across 12 teams and a season that lasts only a few months. Some players simply enjoy being able to work abroad.

Griner’s situation has changed the stakes of making that choice.

One of the W.N.B.A.’s best-known stars, Griner, 31, was recently convicted of drug possession and smuggling in a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after customs officials said they found hashish oil in her luggage. She is appealing her conviction, and U.S. State Department officials maintain that she was wrongfully detained. American and Russian officials have discussed a prisoner swap to bring Griner home, possibly with other detained Americans.

“What would make me feel comfortable about going back to Russia?” Jones said. “B.G. being home, first and foremost.”Credit…Zsolt Szigetvary/EPA, via Shutterstock

When she was arrested, Griner was returning to Russia to join Jones on their team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, for the playoffs. Griner has starred for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury since 2013 and soon after also joined Yekaterinburg, among a handful of clubs owned by oligarchs who pay top salaries for pride and political reasons. Those clubs are not seen as an option right now because of Griner’s detention and the war in Ukraine.

“It’s taken some money off the table for some people,” said Mike Cound, an agent who represents dozens of professional women’s basketball players. “It’s lowered the overall average salaries a little bit, but other countries, especially Turkey, have stepped up, upped their money because they realize they can get players they didn’t previously have access to.”

What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case

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What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case

What happened? In February, Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, on drug charges, after she was stopped at an airport near Moscow. Since then, her detention has been repeatedly extended. Ms. Griner’s trial began on July 1; she pleaded guilty. On Aug. 4, she was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.

What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case

Why was she detained? Officials in Russia said they detained Ms. Griner, who was in the country playing for an international team during the W.N.B.A. off-season, after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage; a criminal case carrying a sentence of up to 10 years was later opened against her. Ms. Griner’s lawyers have argued that the star had a medical prescription for the hashish oil and mistakenly carried the drug into Russia.

What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case

How is the U.S. approaching the situation? U.S. officials have said that Ms. Griner was “wrongfully detained,” adding that they were working aggressively to bring her home. Two days after Ms. Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Biden asking him not to forget about her, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, the W.N.B.A. star’s wife, who had questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough.

What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case

What are the possible outcomes? Experts say that her best hope for release is a prisoner swap with a Russian citizen being held by the United States, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has stated that the United States had put forward a proposal to that effect in talks with Russia. On Aug. 5, top diplomats of the two nations said that their governments were ready to negotiate for the release of both the basketball star and Paul N. Whelan, who is also imprisoned by Russia.

The maximum annual base salary for W.N.B.A. players is $228,094, and just three players earned that much this year, according to Spotrac. Griner’s salary is just under the maximum. The minimum is about $60,000. Each team has a salary cap of about $1.4 million to fill 12 roster spots. The league offers bonuses for winning awards like defensive player of the year, and also helps players find internships or marketing deals during the off-season.

By contrast, some players can make more than $1 million playing overseas. Jones, who has played for the Connecticut Sun since 2016, once told ESPN that she made her entire W.N.B.A. salary — $205,000 this season — in one month playing in Russia. Players in Turkish leagues can make several hundred thousand dollars in a season.

Jones signed with Cukurova in Mersin, Turkey, for the upcoming off-season, as did the W.N.B.A. players Chelsea Gray and Briann January. Breanna Stewart and Emma Meesseman, who played for Yekaterinburg, have signed with Fenerbahce in Istanbul.

Gabby Williams of the Seattle Storm played for Sopron Basket, a Hungarian team, in March. Teams in countries like Turkey have been able to sign players they otherwise wouldn’t have with Russia out of players’ consideration.Credit…Tamas Vasvari/EPA, via Shutterstock

Ender Unlu, the general coordinator for Cukurova, said the team would not have been able to sign those players had Russian teams bid against them.

“Now that the players do not have as many options, and because the Turkish League is the second most valuable league in the world, our league has come to host the most valuable players in the world,” Unlu said.

Marcus Crenshaw, an agent who represents more than a dozen W.N.B.A. players, can see a day soon when W.N.B.A. players won’t seek overseas opportunities to supplement their off-season incomes. “Every girl is not trying to make a gazillion dollars,” he said. “They’re just trying to make a good living.”

But Crenshaw also said some go abroad for extra playing time they don’t get in the W.N.B.A.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown said that W.N.B.A. teams “are going to have to find a way to prioritize and value those role players, those glue players, to keep them here.”

Brown, the daughter of the former N.B.A. player Dee Brown, said her financial needs are different from other players because she doesn’t have dependents to support. She said she is not the caliber of player who typically receives offers to play in Russia, but she wouldn’t want to play in Russia even if she had the chance.

“I never really cared how well they treated the Americans, the Yekat players,” Brown said. “You got to look deep down, you got to kind of do your research about how they treat their citizens in general. And it was just not a place that I wanted to accept money from.”

She said even if Griner is released early, she does not think anyone should feel comfortable taking money from Russian teams.

Cound and Crenshaw said their clients aren’t concerned about their safety abroad.

“I’m positive it’s out there, but I’ve literally had nobody tell me, ‘Man, I’m worried about imprisonment because of something I’m carrying,’” Cound said. “Now, there are a couple of parents of rookies who will be, ‘I want to travel over with them and check things out to be sure they’re safe.’”

The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia

The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

  • Reaction to Guilty Verdict: Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, but her supporters say they will continue to fight to get her home.
  • Her Teammates’ Response: For the Phoenix Mercury players, the news of Ms. Griner’s verdict was heartbreaking, and hours later they had a game to play.
  • The Ordeal, in Her Own Words: During her trial, Ms. Griner said she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what she might do to try to defend herself. 
  • Who Is Viktor Bout?: The man who could be part of a prisoner swap to release Ms. Griner has been accused of supplying arms to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and rebels in Rwanda.

It’s not just rookies whose parents worry.

Brionna Jones, center, and her sister, Stephanie Jones, both played in Europe last winter. Credit…Tolga Bozoglu/EPA, via Shutterstock

Brionna Jones, whom the Sun drafted eighth overall in 2017, played in Prague last winter. Her sister, Stephanie Jones, signed in Poland. Brionna Jones said her father was concerned while they were in Europe, but her family “just wanted to make sure I’m making the right decisions for me.”

“But trying to be financially stable for the future and trying to make the money that they’re offering while we can, that’s probably the biggest part of the decision of going back overseas,” Brionna Jones said.

For those who want to stay in the United States, there are some options.

Brown is one of about a dozen W.N.B.A. players who have committed to participating in Athletes Unlimited, a fledgling multisport organization that holds a five-week basketball season in Las Vegas during the W.N.B.A. off-season. The average base pay is around $20,000, said Jon Patricof, one of its founders.

Kelsey Mitchell, who like Brown signed on for a second season with Athletes Unlimited, said “the sense of comfort is different” in the United States than overseas. “Staying home and things being familiar with where you are and what you’re going to do, or having those resources a little bit quicker compared to being part of outside United States,” said Mitchell, who has also played for the W.N.B.A.’s Indiana Fever since 2018.

Some overseas leagues’ seasons don’t end before W.N.B.A. training camps begin in April, and it is common for players to return late to camp or the start of the season in May. Starting next season, through an agreement with the players’ union, the league can fine some veteran players if they are not back for camp or the start of the season because they are competing in other leagues.

W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert insists that the league is not trying to discourage players from going overseas during the off-season.

“We want to globalize the game. That’s a big pillar of my strategy, and we know we have fans around the world in part because players play overseas,” Engelbert said.

But she added: “It was very important to the owners in the last collective bargaining cycle that we get players to show up on time.”

Breanna Stewart, the 2021 EuroLeague Final Four most valuable player, said she felt changes to W.N.B.A. rules would interfere with players’ ability to play overseas.Credit…Erdem Sahin/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some W.N.B.A. players, like Stewart, who plays for the Seattle Storm, have balked at the change, saying it will interfere with their ability to participate in overseas leagues. Starting in 2024, some players won’t be allowed to compete in the W.N.B.A. season at all if they are not back for the start of training camp.

Engelbert cited the league’s marketing deals for players as an alternative to going abroad for more money. The league can pay individual players up to $250,000 for marketing deals; Engelbert said she expected the league to sign about 10 players this off-season, up from three last year. Teams can spend up to $100,000 total on marketing deals for players each year, with about 20 expected this year, Engelbert said.

But with so much money at stake abroad, international teams are likely to continue drawing W.N.B.A. players. But perhaps not to teams in Russia.

“I can tell you there’s people that will never go back to Russia,” said Cierra Burdick, 28, who has played in the W.N.B.A., Russia and several other European countries. “I think it just depends on the individual and what they’re comfortable doing. For some people, Europe is not for them. A lot has happened in the world where people just don’t feel safe anymore.”

Remy Tumin contributed reporting in Charlotte, N.C., and Bora Isyar in Turkey.

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