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Did the gender pay gap lead to WNBA player Brittney Griner getting arrested in Russia?

Brittney Griner, WNBA, Russia, gender wage gap
Brittney GrinerPhoto: YouTube screenshot

As lesbian pro-basketball player Britney Griner remains imprisoned in Russia on alleged drug charges, the union leader of the Women’s National Basket Association (WNBA) has blamed the low pay for Griner’s ordeal.

During a Tuesday appearance on Good Morning America, Nneka Ogwumike, the head of the WNBA players union, said, “The reality is, she’s over there because of a gender issue ― pay inequity…. We go over [to Russia and other countries] to supplement our incomes,” she added.

Related: Lesbian pro-basketballer’s wife releases message on spouse’s Russian drug arrest

The highest-paid WNBA player earns $228,000 a year. Meanwhile, some top NBA players make more than $1 million, ABC News reported.

In order to make extra money, Griner and many other WNBA players compete in Russia during the U.S. league’s off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years. Other players, like Ogwumike, have also played in Poland, China, and elsewhere during the off-season.

“It’s disappointing that the question of it being a gender issue is top of mind now, when it comes to this type of circumstance,” Ogwumike added, noting that WNBA officials have been educating themselves on the issues at play and speaking carefully in public not to jeopardize Griner’s chances of release.

Russian authorities at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow arrested Griner on February 17, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the alleged “large-scale transportation of drugs.” The authorities allegedly found cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage. The charge carries a possible five- to 10-year prison sentence.

Griner’s detainment in Russia has been extended until May 19. It’s unclear what will happen to her after that date.

Ogwumike isn’t the first person to blame the pay gap for Griner’s arrest. A petition calling for Griner’s release, started by activist Tamryn Spruill, criticized the vast pay inequality between men and women athletes in the U.S. for Griner’s presence in Russia.

Observers have worried that Russia may be essentially holding Brittney Griner hostage in order to use her as political leverage. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and other western allied nations have issued economic and diplomatic sanctions that have negatively impacted Russia and isolated the country from the rest of the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the sanctions could be interpreted as declarations of war amid reports of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. embassy is working on Griner’s case as well as others currently detained by Russia. Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is also pushing for her release.

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