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Brittney Griner’s jailing won’t shatter the appeal of high wages in autocratic states, sports watchers say

Basketball star Brittney Griner’s politically charged involvement in Russia may stall other athletes pursuing contracts in authoritarian states, though sports watchers say economic needs are driving them to seek opportunities abroad in the first place.

And if that doesn’t change, players presented with a better opportunity elsewhere might be tempted to pursue it despite the risks.

Griner, a 31-year-old WNBA star, had traveled to Russia every winter to play basketball — reportedly depositing a $1 million US paycheck, more than four times what she paid back home had earned.

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 likely seems to serve as a “harsh red flag” for other athletes, but not necessarily an absolute deterrent to the Play in similar authoritarian jurisdictions.

In Russia this week, Griner was sentenced 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 seek to expand their presence in professional sports, the lure of high salaries will likely continue to attract some athletes from democracies despite Griner’s incarceration, economic watchdogs said.

CLOCK | 9 years imprisonment for Griner:

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug possession and smuggling charges – a politically charged move that US President Joe Biden denounced.

Griner’s ruling came alongside a conviction for drug possession and smuggling – in connection with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil found in her luggage. She told a Russian court she accidentally wrapped them.

“It is extremely unfortunate what is happening to Ms. Griner,” said Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sports management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, who views her as “collateral damage” in broader tensions between Russia and the US

Naraine said her case had been closely watched in the sporting world – and its repercussions were penetrating.

“It’s something that the athletes have been dealing with,” he said.

Better money abroad, more roster places

Athletes who want to play in leagues far from home usually do so for paychecks, observers said.

Such was the case with Griner, who, like other WNBA players, went to Russia to supplement her income.

A picture of Griner is seen on a video board during a rally held at the Footprint Center in Phoenix last month. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Naraine said that this reality sends athletes looking for better opportunities, and not just in Russia.

“There’s a reason professional women’s basketball players have to play in Australia, Russia, Lithuania, etc.,” he said.

This is in stark contrast to many of their male counterparts in the NBA, he added, as they make far more money at home.

Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said that’s exactly why Griner plays in Russia.

“The reality is she’s over there because of a gender issue — pay equity,” Ogwuimike told ABC Good morning AmericaEarlier this year, and found that she, too, had played basketball in Russia.

As of Friday, reports show Moscow remains ready to discuss a proposed prisoner swap that would bring home Griner and another imprisoned American in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer.

But it’s not clear if or when that will happen.

When it comes to the forces driving athletes to go abroad, Slan said another factor is that the big leagues in North America have a limited number of roster spots.

This means that athletes may have to make difficult decisions in order to continue their careers.

“There are 144 WNBA roster spots and 510 NBA roster spots,” he said. “Outside of these top leagues, some of the best paid teams in the world are based in places like China and Russia.”

And it’s not just the game of basketball that offers more lucrative opportunities.

“China is one of those countries where athletes go to play to get their salaries somewhere where they can have a comfortable life,” said Naraine of Brock University, noting that there are opportunities for Canadians to to play hockey and other sports there.

The wide world outside of sport

Slan, whose company has seen clients in 40 countries around the world, said he looks at the broader context when considering international options for clients.

“I try to fully prepare my clients for any situation,” he explained, and assessing risk is part of that process.

But as his customers have learned, the unexpected can happen.

“I had clients who played in Ukraine last season just before the Russian invasion,” said Slan.

“Although there was no way before the season to understand that a Russian invasion was imminent, I was able to safely guide my clients out of the country and out of harm’s way.”

Andrew Zimbalist, professor emeritus of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, said the Griner case could prompt athletes to consider more options in leagues in Democratic countries.

“Firstly, if I were a players’ agent, I would use all my powers of persuasion to stop them from playing in Russia and I would warn them against playing in other authoritarian countries,” Zimbalist said via email. “Secondly, leagues in democratic countries are becoming more attractive.”

Slan agrees – saying safety and economic stability are key factors to weigh when athletes make a decision about where to play.

“Countries like Germany and France have become more attractive,” said Slan. “Maybe they don’t pay as much as other leagues, but they are safe and player salaries come on time. That has its value.”

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