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WNBA Players' Association calls for White House to take action on Griner's release

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The WNBA is a few weeks into its new season, but it is missing one of its biggest stars. Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury, WNBA champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been held in Russian detention since February, when she was on her way to play with the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason. Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis in her luggage at the airport. If convicted, she could face a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Griner is considered one of the best, if not the best female basketball player of all time. Her list of accolades and firsts is long. Initially, WNBA and NBA players were advised not to bring much attention out of concern that Russia could position her as a political prisoner in its feud with the West amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. That changed earlier this month when the U.S. State Department classified Griner as quote-unquote "wrongfully detained."

We wanted to know more about this situation, so we called Nneka Ogwumike. She is the president of the WNBA Players Association, and she plays for the LA Sparks. And she is with us now. Nneka Ogwumike, thanks so much for joining us.

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the administration - that the Biden administration is doing enough?

OGWUMIKE: We want to see more action. Obviously, we didn't want it to get to 93 days for her to be locked up in another country. But we have to - you know, we have to respect the process while also understanding the pressing matter in which we have one of ours who's just not here. You know, it's just not right to start the season without her. And no member of our global sporting community should ever be used as what seems to be a political pawn at this point. And we're imploring upon the White House to do everything possible to bring her back.

MARTIN: I want to remind people about why Griner was in Russia to begin with. It's that, you know, a number of WNBA athletes play internationally in the WNBA offseason to supplement their WNBA salaries. It's been reported that Griner was making about $1,000,000 per year playing in Russia, which is roughly four times her U.S. salary. This past Wednesday, a deal was announced to pay the U.S. women's and men's national soccer teams equally. And I'm just wondering if this is causing some feelings among the WNBA about - I mean, it's true, like, some of the men play internationally as well. But generally the biggest stars on the men's side do not. And I'm just wondering what conversations you are having among your fellow players about that. That's why she was there.

OGWUMIKE: I think the conversation from which we always are aware of, but it becomes more front and center when these things happen in the world about pay inequity. You know, there's a larger conversation around pay inequity. You said it best. You know, the grander stars in the comparable men's leagues aren't playing overseas. But, you know, we do to ensure that we can supplement our income. And it's just sad to know that, you know, our sister BG was over there trying to make money like everyone else, and then this happened.

MARTIN: And are there talks about doing something to equalize the men's and women's salaries so that stars like Brittney Griner don't feel they have to play overseas in order to amplify their compensation? Are those conversations - I know you just signed another collective bargaining agreement, correct?

OGWUMIKE: We did.

MARTIN: But are there conversations about this?

OGWUMIKE: It shouldn't get to this point for us to take the conversation seriously. But it's a subject that we've always brought up being in the WNBA and being a part of the WNBPA. And we're hoping that this becomes somewhat of a last straw, it ignites those who have the agency to make this change big happen very soon.

MARTIN: I'm also curious about what kind of advice that players like Brittney Griner who play overseas are getting from the league. I understand that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been working with your group, with the WNBA, with the players to maintain visibility around Brittney Griner and her detention. But I am curious if players who have been playing overseas - do they get any kind of advice about their safety?

OGWUMIKE: That's an excellent question. I love that you ask that. Our WNBPA staff does an excellent job. We have an executive director in Terri Jackson - they do an excellent job of working with the league to ensure that we have those safety measures available to us, given any type of event that happens globally. That happened during the pandemic. That happened during the incitement of this of this war. But there's only so much you can do knowing that players are still going to go over there. But those resources are definitely made available to us. I wouldn't say that it necessarily extends to deployed security, because ultimately you're playing in different markets on different teams, and different teams obviously provide their own safety measures.

MARTIN: But what I'm asking you is, did anybody from the league suggest to Brittney Griner, given the fact that Russia was poised to start this war in Ukraine - did anybody suggest that perhaps she shouldn't go?

OGWUMIKE: Well, players were already over there prior to the war, so it was more of a case of come home; don't complete your season. But we had a national team break in which players came home, had some time and got to go back. So it was a very unique situation in which things were happening as players were going back. And some players made it back. Yeah, some players made it back to their countries and ended up leaving early. Some players were able to complete their seasons, especially for those players that were not in countries that were directly affected by the war.

MARTIN: I see. Well, before we let you go, do you mind if I - you sort of alluded to this earlier. I just wanted to ask, you expressed, like, a sense of loss, like, starting the season without a valued colleague and teammate being there. What's been the atmosphere among players on and off the court?

OGWUMIKE: Yeah. I mean, there's a great sense of vacancy, you know? It's just not the same not having her here. I played against BG since I was in high school. We're both from Houston. So there's definitely a shared upbringing between the two of us. And, you know, not only is she not here, but also, you know, the nature in which she's not here and seeing her initials and her number on every single court - it just doesn't feel right. And I think it really helps players consider, you know, what we do this for - not just playing, but playing for each other, representing each other, ensuring that we can do everything possible to just uplift each other.

MARTIN: That was Nneka Ogwumike. She's president of the WNBA Players Association. Nneka Ogwumike, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck on the rest of the season and with this effort to free your colleague.

OGWUMIKE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.