Basketball star Brittney Griner’s politically charged involvement in Russia may put other athletes on pause from pursuing contracts in authoritarian states, though sports observers say economic need is driving them to seek opportunities abroad in the first place.
And unless that changes, players who get a better opportunity elsewhere may be tempted to pursue it, despite the risks.
Griner, a 31-year-old WNBA star, made her way to Russia every winter to play basketball — reportedly a $1 million salary in the US, more than four times what she earned back home.
Matt Slan, the founder and CEO of Slan Sports Management, a Toronto-based company that represents basketball players, told CBC News that Griner’s story will likely serve as “a harsh warning sign” to other athletes, but not necessarily a total deterrent to them. playing in similar authoritarian jurisdictions.
In Russia, Griner was sentenced this week to nine years in prison for drug possession. 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 try to expand their presence in professional sports, the lure of high salaries is likely to continue to attract some athletes from democracies, business observers said, despite Griner’s jail term.
Griner’s verdict came along with a conviction for drug possession and smuggling — related to vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil, her baggage found. She told a Russian court that she accidentally packed them.
“It’s extremely unfortunate what’s happening to Ms. Griner,” said Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sports management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, who sees her as “collateral damage” in a wider Russia-US tension.
Naraine said her case has been closely watched in the sports world — and its implications have filtered through.
“This is something that has been on the minds of athletes,” he said.
Better money abroad, more roster places
Athletes who want to play in leagues far from home usually do so because of the paychecks, observers said.
So did Griner, who like other WNBA players went to Russia to supplement her income.
Naraine said this reality is driving athletes in search of better opportunities, and not just in Russia.
“There’s a reason why professional women’s basketball players have to play in Australia, Russia, Lithuania, you name it,” he said.
This is in stark contrast to many of their male counterparts in the NBA, he added, as they make much more money at home.
Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said that is exactly why Griner played in Russia.
“The reality is she’s there because of a gender issue – pay equality,” 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 is not clear if or when that will happen.
When it comes to the forces driving athletes abroad, Slan said another factor is that the major leagues in North America only have so many roster spots.
That means that athletes sometimes have to make difficult choices to continue their career.
“There are 144 WNBA roster spots and 510 NBA roster spots,” he said. “Outside of these top leagues, some of the highest paying teams in the world live in countries like China and Russia.”
And it’s not just basketball that offers more lucrative opportunities.
“China is one of those jurisdictions where athletes go to play to get their paychecks where they can live a comfortable life,” said Naraine of Brock University, noting that there are opportunities for Canadians who play hockey and other sports there. .
The wide world outside sports
Slan, whose company has seen clients play in 40 countries around the world, said he’s looking at the broader context when weighing international options for clients.
“I try to fully prepare my clients for any situation,” he explains, and risk assessment is part of that process.
Although, as his clients have learned, the unexpected can happen.
“I had clients who played in Ukraine last season, just before the Russian invasion,” said Slan.
“While there was no way of understanding that a Russian invasion was imminent prior to the season, I was able to safely lead my clients out of the country and put them out of harm’s way.”
Andrew Zimbalist, professor emeritus of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, said the Griner case may prompt athletes to consider more opportunities in leagues operating in Democratic countries.
“First, if I were a player agent I would use all my persuasiveness to prevent them from playing in Russia and I would warn them against playing in other authoritarian countries,” Zimbalist said via email. “Secondly, competitions in democratic countries will become more attractive.”
Slan agrees — and the said safety and economic stability are important factors to consider when athletes are deciding where to play.
“Countries like Germany and France have become more attractive,” says Slan. “Maybe they don’t pay as much as some other leagues, but they’re safe and players’ salaries come in on time. There’s value in that.”