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Critics blame WNBA for Brittney Griner's absence, since she went to Russia for money

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

A new WNBA season gets underway today without one of the league's biggest stars. Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury, remains in Russian custody on an allegation of drug smuggling. For years, Griner has played in Russia to make more money. That's something many WNBA players go overseas to do. The league will honor Griner in her absence, but it's also pushing back on the notion that it's not doing enough to fairly compensate athletes. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It was one headline but could have been many since Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in February. It read "How Low WNBA Salaries Led To An American Basketball Superstar's Detainment In Russia," and it rankled the WNBA.

CATHY ENGELBERT: The narrative that the only choice for WNBA players to make additional income overseas, I think, is outdated and inaccurate.

GOLDMAN: League Commissioner Cathy Engelbert says before she took over three years ago, it probably was accurate. But thanks to a widely praised labor deal in 2020, she says the chance for more WNBA money is there.

ENGELBERT: Top players now have the opportunity to make 500- to 650K, including all their opportunities.

GOLDMAN: Such as...

ENGELBERT: League and team marketing deals where we put a million dollars plus on the table for players in the off-season as long as they don't go overseas.

GOLDMAN: Last month, Engelbert said there were 29 such deals, with more expected. Betnijah Laney of the New York Liberty was one of the first players to sign a league deal. She's played in Israel and Australia but would rather not.

BETNIJAH LANEY: I like to be home and to be able to experience birthdays, experience holidays with my family. And going overseas, that's just something that you don't get the opportunity to do.

GOLDMAN: Laney's league and team deals require everything from social media posts to, this week, throwing out the first pitch at a New York Mets game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And now she has to throw the pitch (ph).

GOLDMAN: Laney won't say if the deals on top of salary put her in that higher six-figure range. She will say this.

LANEY: It is enough for me to stay home and be comfortable.

GOLDMAN: The W wants that to be the norm for its players but knows league revenues have to swell to make it possible. Engelbert says that means cutting through cultural bias that's historically undervalued women's sports. But there are what she calls signs and signals - partnership deals with Amazon and Google. And this year, investors ponied up $75 million for the WNBA. Engelbert called it a huge step forward in getting an economic model that's worthy of the players. One of the best, Courtney Vandersloot of the defending champion Chicago Sky, acknowledges the league is making strides.

COURTNEY VANDERSLOOT: But we're not there yet. And so you can't expect players to turn down these type of contracts to be over here to not make the same type of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Vandersloot (non-English language spoken).

GOLDMAN: Since 2018, Vandersloot has played in Russia during WNBA off-seasons on the same team as Brittney Griner, a top team well funded by its oligarch owners.

VANDERSLOOT: They treated us like professionals. You know, we flew private. They put us in really nice places. They paid us good money. You know, they just really took care of us.

GOLDMAN: Vandersloot knows playing there in the near future is unlikely, but she'd still consider going overseas somewhere, even though WNBA players who do that risk breaking a strict new rule called prioritization. Starting next year, it'll require players to show up for the start of WNBA training camp and then the season or face fines and even a season-long suspension. It's what the players agreed to in the labor contract in exchange for, among other things, higher salaries. Vandersloot appreciates the concept.

VANDERSLOOT: I agree with it, that we should all be over here. I want to be over here to prioritize the WNBA.

GOLDMAN: But she says it's still a tough decision for top veteran players like her with the continuing lure of overseas money.

Starting today, Brittney Griner's initials and uniform number will be featured on all 12 WNBA courts, honoring a missing colleague and serving as a reminder of the league's ongoing challenge to treat the best female basketball players like they are the best.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXMAG'S "ZAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.