Brittney Griner’s imprisonment had me thinking about the tenuous place women athletes have in America. The median salary in the NBA is about $4 million with the average about double that amount. The top stars make $10 million, $20 million, $30 million or more.
Griner is also a star basketball player, but she is not paid like the men. The WNBA has salary caps that limit the top pay in the league to about $225,000. (The average salary is about half that sum.)
Players can make five or ten times their WNBA salary playing abroad in the WNBA offseason, most notably in Russia, but also in Turkey and China. And thus Griner was going to Russia to play another season of basketball in a foreign country, something that the NBA stars don’t do.
She was arrested, of course, for violating Russian drug laws. Most of us Americans saw a legal proceeding that we assumed did not have independent judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, but had personnel who acted at the direction of other state authorities. For what seemed like a de minimis offense, Griner got what seemed like an overly harsh sentence to be served under harsh conditions that evoked Stalinist and Cold War images. (She would be incarcerated in a “penal colony.”) I was like others in believing Griner’s arrest, guilty plea, and sentence were politically motivated and that she was some sort of a pawn in a Russian plot.
I was happy, then, that she was freed. However, America being what it is today, partisanship reared its head, and many told us that the deal to bring her home was awful. I, however, was having other thoughts. As an American, I felt vaguely superior in contemplating yet another modern-day Russian horror. But then I paused and reflected about our own justice system. On a per capita basis this country imprisons its population at about twice the rate Russia does. We incarcerate more per capita than any other country. It would be good if coming out of the Brittney Griner saga we thought more about that.