Nneka Ogwumike on Brittney Griner and the politics of pay inequity
Season two of The Long Game kicks off with returning host Ibtihaj Muhammad interviewing Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, about the efforts she and others in the league have made to keep the spotlight on Brittney Griner. Brittney, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, was sentenced in August 2022 to nine years in a Russian prison after pleading guilty to drug charges. Russian officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s airport. Brittney testified that she “had no intent” of breaking any Russian laws.
Ogwumike talks about the injustice of Brittney’s case, and also delves into her success negotiating the WNBA’s most recent union contract and her quest to end pay inequity in professional basketball.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
I think like a lot of people, I found out about Brittney’s arrest online.
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING:
WNBA player Brittney Griner detained in Russia and facing potential prison time.
NEWSCLIP WITH SECOND AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING:
Video released by Russian customs showing a woman appearing to be the six foot nine Phoenix Mercury player going through airport security near Moscow.
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING:
They say they found vapes and liquid cannabis—or hash oil—in Griner’s carry-on luggage. You can see that video there.
NEWSCLIP WITH THIRD AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING:
The episode comes as the United States has implemented economic sanctions on Russia as its assault on Ukraine intensifies.
IBTIHAJ: It was so…just…shocking and jarring, because as an athlete who has, so often, traveled to Russia for World Cups, grand prix, training camps, world championships, world combat games—you know, I immediately felt so much empathy for Brittney.
I never once questioned whether or not she was innocent in this. You know, would it be different if Brittney looked different? You know, if she wasn’t a Black woman, a Black gay woman, you know, what would society’s response—especially Americans—what would our response to Brittney if Brittney was LeBron? If, you know, Brittney were a white woman? If she, you know, was an NBA player versus a WNBA player? And you have all these different questions play out in your mind, but at the end of the day, it’s like, how do we get Brittney home now?
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
And I’m executive producer Karen Given. Today on the show, Ibtihaj interviews Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association. Nneka’s a force on the court and in the boardroom. She helped negotiate the WNBA’s most recent contract. But since Brittney Griner’s arrest, Nneka’s been speaking out about something else: the plight of her friend and the politics of pay inequity.
IBTIHAJ: When it comes Brittney’s situation, when it comes to activism in the context of where we are in 2022, I think that we have to frame that around women’s basketball. Nneka, as an athlete, as an activist, but also as the president of the WNBA Players Association, I think is—honestly, I couldn’t think of a more, like, perfect person to have this conversation with.
IBTIHAJ: Nneka, I’m so excited to have you on today. What was this past WNBA season like for the players? I know that you were worried about your friend, but you also, you know, needed to go out on the court and compete. So I imagine that was so difficult.
I mean, there was just such a void, you know? And I certainly can’t speak for the Phoenix team, but I definitely felt the energy of not having, you know, one of us with us throughout the season. And then on top of that, kind of using that collective energy of, like, longing for BG to be back to really spearhead how we were able to get her name out there and get people to understand that we need to get the attention of the US government to negotiate her release and to ensure that, you know, she is adequately and exceptionally treated in whatever way possible while she’s over there. And it was—I mean, nothing about it is easy, but we know…we know that she would do the same, if not even more, for any one of us. And she’s a part of us. And we have to—we have to fight for our own.
IBTIHAJ: And now that the season’s over, are you worried that people will forget about BG?
NNEKA: That’s crossed my mind. That’s certainly crossed my mind. But we have our brethren on the NBPA side who have also spoken out.
NEWSCLIP WITH LEBRON JAMES SPEAKING:
She’s such a, a great human being, a great person. Obviously, I’ve been in her presence a few times and you know, you always feel like, you know, if you’re from a certain place, you always feel like they got your back. And in a sense, like, now, how can she feel like America has her back?
NNEKA: And so many other athletes, like Megan Rapinoe, who have been very outward with us prioritizing getting her home.
NEWSCLIP WITH MEGAN RAPINOE SPEAKING OVER APPLAUDING CROWD:
Like, what are we doing here dressed up like we are when our sister’s detained abroad?
NNEKA: I just know how we move as a collective, and it’s very powerful when we’re able to do that. So, you know, focusing on plans, strategies and initiatives that can still keep us organized in a way, where we—our voice can, can still be loud in these months that we’re not in season, I think, is what’s really important. But we have an amazing WNBPA staff, and of course we have our WNBA front office, and we all work together to just continue to remind people that she’s not back here.
IBTIHAJ: How’s everyone holding up?
NNEKA: Um…I mean, there’s no way to say that everyone is doing well. I think every day is just another added weight to her coming back. We just want people to continue to remember that she is wrongfully detained and we need to get her home, as well as a lot of other Americans.
IBTIHAJ: When you first started publicly speaking about this, you had to be very careful about what you said and how you said it. What advice were you getting at that point?
NNEKA: The advice that I was really getting in the beginning was just understanding the facts. And I think that—I think that a lot of the women in this league, too, really leaned heavily on the information that we were able to get that was accurate and confirmed. But for me, because I had—I represent the constituency of these women in the WNBPA, I wanted to ensure that whatever I said only contributed to her impending release. I didn’t want to jeopardize, in any way, any type of standings or any type of verdict. And most, most importantly, her health and safety. That was kind of how I was approaching how I spoke out in the beginning, and also using my platform and agreeing to speak on different outlets to ensure that people understood accurately what was going on and why she was there in the first place.
IBTIHAJ: Has that advice changed at all from what you were given when we first found out that Brittney had been, you know, wrongfully detained to now?
NNEKA: Yeah. I mean, of course, when it first happened, we were trying to understand the nature of her detainment, given the start of the war and relations between the two countries. And so being loud and making a lot of noise initially didn’t quite serve her situation. And then once the facts came, and once we were able to understand, like, what resources were available to her, to us and, you know, the plan to get her back, that’s when advisement really weighed heavily on us. Making sure that people knew her name, knew who she was, know that she’s an international star and she’s celebrated in two different countries that are involved in, in both her career and, ultimately, her release. And so that advisement has definitely evolved. And, and we’re now at the phase of—we must continue. We must continue. And it’s not always easy when it feels like things aren’t changing, but it’s really the only option, because silence is not one.
IBTIHAJ: And there have been those who have criticized the US government by saying that if Brittney wasn’t a woman, or if she was white or if she wasn’t gay, the government would have done more. What’s your perspective on that?
NNEKA: My perspective on that actually comes even before any type of, you know, situation involving detainment occurs. BG, as well as a host of many other players, are there in the first place because of a lot of inequities that we experience with women in sport. A lot of the stigmas and a lot of the characterizations of women and women in sport you’ve kind of touched on, you know, in terms of what she represents. And that’s not celebrated everywhere. But we have dreams and we want to make a living fulfilling those dreams. And that’s exactly what Brittney is doing and what we were doing when we would play overseas. And there’s just this really difficult decision between livelihood and, ultimately, life and safety. And I think that a lot of people are right, you know, given—given the inequities that we experience as women, just because we’re born into the struggle, certainly lends to the idea that whether it was Brittney or another prominent player that’s a man, coverage would be much different. Accessibility and resource would be much different. But I err on the side of just doing what we need to do to get her home. And if it’s not towards the progress of getting her back, I just try to let those people have those arguments and focus on those who, who are prioritizing her safe return.
IBTIHAJ: I actually really like that. I think that that is a really powerful perspective to have. And now we understand why you are president of the WNBA Players Association. [IBTIHAJ AND NNEKA LAUGH]
NNEKA: I’m not the only one who thinks this way. [LAUGHS]
IBTIHAJ: No, I mean, I, I, I think it’s really commendable. I—my first thought, you know, when I heard about Brittney’s arrest, was I felt like this could have happened to anyone. Like as an athlete, I traveled to Russia more than once a year for, you know, more than 10 years. And I’ve always felt, like, this—just kind of uncomfortable there as a visibly Black person, as someone who’s visibly Muslim. And I’ve had my share of things happen while I was there. But one thing that I’ve never in a million years thought about was whether or not I would be wrongfully detained. And so I, I feel like Brittney could have been any of us. And this is why we have to fight and we have to continue to keep her name on the tip of our tongues until she’s free.
NNEKA: And I really appreciate your perspective, because you’re absolutely correct. It could have been any of us, and that’s reason enough for all of us to speak out.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
IBTIHAJ: Nneka, Brittney pleaded guilty to charges and was sentenced to nine years in jail. And there have been some people who have said she broke the law in a foreign country; she’s going to have to suffer the consequences. What do you say to that?
NNEKA: Um…I don’t. [CHUCKLES] I don’t say anything to that. To be very honest, Ibtihaj, I really don’t say anything to that. It actually makes me emotional, like, hearing people say stuff like that. But I don’t know if I’m helping bring any type of awareness by saying that I don’t say anything to that, but I really don’t.
IBTIHAJ: But this is someone that is not just, like, a colleague of yours.
IBTIHAJ: Brittney is a friend. She is family to you.
IBTIHAJ: And so to hear anyone say something like that about someone that you deeply care about, somebody that—whose livelihood, their security, you know, their health is in jeopardy…. What I think when I see, you know, these comments—especially on social media, it can be such a horrible place—but when I see comments like that, it makes me wonder, would people have the same response if Brittney looked different, if she didn’t appear in the world as she does?
IBTIHAJ: And I think that that’s a question that the people who do write things like this and do have that to say—I think that that’s something that they need to ask themselves.
NNEKA: Absolutely. You answered it way better than I ever could. [NNEKA AND IBTIHAJ CHUCKLE]
IBTIHAJ: Never, never, never. I’m, I’m loving this conversation so much, Nneka. [NNEKA CHUCKLES] And you very clearly connected Brittney’s current situation to pay inequity. Can you describe that for me?
NNEKA: Yeah. I mean, to put it simply, going overseas to play—it’s a, it’s a supplement, not necessarily a complement, to what we want back home, as far as compensation and salary goes. And, and that’s the headline of inequities when it comes to women in sport. Just like BG, I played four seasons in Russia, four successful seasons in Russia, both on the court and also, you know, financially for me. And it’s really sad to know that we’re now getting to a point where health and safety is, is being compromised for us to continue to, to be paid our value, and for that value to be reflected in our salary, in compensation. And so a lot of, a lot of questions in the beginning were, you know, “Why was she there?” She wasn’t the only player that was in Russia, you know, and there was more than one player even playing in Ukraine. And even throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of athletes experience hardship with having been away from home and figuring out what—what they can do to continue to stay safe. And these inequities are, are—I mean, I wouldn’t even say highlighted. They’re, they’re on red alert when such world circumstances directly affect a lot of prominent athletes. And, and it’s something that has to be fixed. I’m hoping that this was the wake-up call that a lot of people who weren’t educated about the inequities that we face as women in sport—because this certainly isn’t the only one; you know that better than anyone does, Ibtihaj. And so I don’t want it to continue to be what feels like a life and death situation when people are making decisions to just live out their dreams.
IBTIHAJ: One of the arguments I always hear—that men’s sports make more money, and therefore male athletes should earn more money. What makes that an oversimplification of the issue?
NNEKA: So I always kind of like to—because, you know, a lot of times, people—when people use that analogy or that explanation, they, they feel as though they’re communicating in layman’s terms and as simple—like you said, an oversimplification of exactly what’s happening. So then I try to retort with an oversimplification. So the way that I see it is: the NBA is 76 years old. The WNBA is 26 years old. If you were to look at a 76-year-old and a 26-year-old, how did their experiences, their resources, their connections, you know, their yields in life really compare?
NNEKA: All other things kind of being equal—which we all know isn’t true in the first place—but a 26-year-old who was already born with inequities, compared to a 76-year-old who had a level playing field, it’s going to look very different. And it’s going to require more investment to level the playing field. But we live in such modern times that, you know, we see an NBA player making multimillion and we see a WNBA player making a few hundred thousand as a max player. And we just want to think that we’re comparing those two as they are, today, without really considering the history and the upbringing of the two separate situations. So that’s—I don’t know if I’m explaining that as best as I can, but once you start thinking about it in that way, then you really now start considering, OK, what can I do to make—to check the balances between these two “individuals,” quote unquote, or between these two leagues?
IBTIHAJ: And you brought up a really great point. I think that it would require more investment. And when we look at us as individuals, like, what can we all do? And I always say, like, one easy thing people can do is just to show up. To make sure that you go and you support these women who are pouring their lives, their time, their energy, their time, like, away from their families, the blood, sweat, tears, the injuries—all those things into the game that they love. The least we can do is show up in support. And so I know for me, I try to make sure that I get out to some games. I live so close to Staples-slash-Crypto.com Arena, I make sure I go support, and I hope that the rest of us are doing what we can to make sure that we’re investing in women’s sports.
In 2020, you helped secure a new WNBA bargaining agreement. It guaranteed a 53 percent increase in salaries and bonuses, paid maternity leave and more marketing dollars. Looking back, was it enough?
NNEKA: I mean, looking back, I would say that it was historical. Was it enough? That’s such an interesting way to ask that question. I personally think that it’s more so a catalyst or a catapult to where we want to go. It’s by no means our landing point, but it’s certainly further than we had ever experienced. So I’d say that that—that definitely created this vigor that hopefully inspires future generations and those who are coming in, you know, after us to want more, to fight for more, to demand more, and for that to be reflected in, in their value, whether it’s in the CBA, whether it’s in a contract. And there’s been a lot of positive feedback, not just for women in sport, but what surprised me is that there was a lot of positive feedback from women in the workplace. I didn’t realize that we had forged change that women in the workplace weren’t experiencing. And as, as women in sport, you just kind of assume that, you know, with an unconventional occupation, you are not necessarily being considered when it comes to the resources that you need, and that other places are a bit more intact with the conventional nature of, you know, going into work every day. But we quickly found out that we actually set the tone for a lot of working women and a lot of organizations and corporations who, who didn’t have the things that we fought for. So I would say that for the time, sure, it seemed like enough, or it’s depicted as so. But we know that that’s not how far we want to go.
IBTIHAJ: The WNBA has impacted so many of us in ways that we probably don’t even really consider. And I’m thinking, specifically, over the past few years during the pandemic, and the WNBA and its players, Iike, really leading the charge in not just, you know, the Black Lives Matter, but just in the—kind of the way that we show up in the world, and how we hold ourselves and others accountable. And I think that’s why when you speak about women in the workplace, I’m not surprised that it’s even had a ripple effect for women in corporate America. I, I believe that you guys have been so integral in just the way we show up as women, the way we show up as ourselves, and how we live out our lives authentically.
Last year, Nneka, almost a dozen WNBA players were playing in Russia, and according to the Associated Press, none of them returned this year. Did that surprise you?
NNEKA: Oh, of course not. No, that didn’t surprise me at all. I think that the question of whether I make this money or I consider, you know, my safety and my health is certainly at top of mind. Especially as, as it seems, other opportunities are being more—are being made more available for women in sport that don’t require players to go overseas. Or, you know, markets may be more robust in other countries like Turkey and Israel and France and Hungary. But I’m not at all surprised by that. And I feel as though there’s probably a—there’s going to be a trend in that direction. And what we’ve experienced in Brittney’s wrongful detainment and the pandemic, I think, has certainly accelerated the inevitable.
IBTIHAJ: Some news outlets are describing this as a protest. Is that the way you would describe it?
NNEKA: Um…that’s not the first, the first word that really comes to mind. I would probably just describe it as prioritization. You know? Players really understanding what’s important to them at this moment in time, in their careers and, and also considering what opportunities are available or not. It’s not to say that there are players that—who chose not to go over there are doing any better. It really just may mean that that’s now a market that is lost on a lot of players who depended on it, too.
IBTIHAJ: And there are fewer overseas jobs right now because of COVID-19, and slots in Turkey and other countries are going to players who would normally be in Russia. What are players doing instead?
NNEKA: This is an excellent question. I try my best to keep up with a lot of the athletes, you know, in the WNBA, to see exactly what they’re doing to continue to maintain a living. I, too, was affected by the pandemic, keeping me from going overseas. I was on track to just be playing half-seasons in China. And because of the pandemic, I haven’t been back over there yet. Players are doing what they can to ensure that they’re—they still have resources and opportunity to maintain their livelihood. But also, I think what is, is interesting is that with less players playing overseas and, ultimately, them trying to source their own ways of making more money, there’s now more resource that is necessary for them to stay in shape, to be training. There’s no real standard for that across the league. Not every team is going to be able to provide you with facilities and sports medical resources to stay in shape for the next season. So I know a lot of players are into broadcasting and coaching, of course, but players also have individual businesses. But I think that the rise of social media and brand partnership is something that players are leaning heavily on to ensure that they can still do what they love and make money doing it.
IBTIHAJ: I mean, there are so many untold stories amongst athletes in general, but even you highlighting that not all teams are equal, in a sense, that they’re providing adequate resources to their players in the off season to stay in shape or be prepared for the next season—that was something that I didn’t know.
I want to end this conversation on a positive note. So let’s assume that Brittney is released early. What will you do when BG finally comes home?
NNEKA: Well, of course, we want to engulf her with any love and care that we can, support that we can, when she’s ready. But I think what I feel that I want best for her is a better league. Whether she wants to play in it or not, I want her to come back to something better. And there’s still so much that we have to work on for players in general. But she deserves so much better than what she had before, what she has now, and what she’s going to come home early to.
IBTIHAJ: Nneka, that’s really beautiful. And honestly, I mean, I’m, I’m just blown away, and I wish that this conversation could continue because I really look up to you, Nneka, not just as a friend, but also just—I don’t know, as a person who’s trying to do better in life.
NNEKA: Thank you so much.
IBTIHAJ: I really enjoyed this conversation. Yeah.
NNEKA: Thank you. So did I. And I just, I’m, I’m always happy and grateful—I think I’ve told you this in person, just, like, how you conduct yourself and how you use your essence to lift others up, I think it’s just second to none. And I’m happy to call you my friend.
IBTIHAJ: You can’t see me, but I’m sending hearts your way. [NNEKA CHUCKLES] I hope I get to hug you in person soon.
NNEKA: Yes, please. [CHUCKLES]
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Our executive producer is Karen Given.
KAREN: We had help this week from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.
IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…
KAREN: Robi Alam was born in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. He and his friends would wrap rubber bands around a wad of plastic bags and play football until the ball fell apart. When Robi was 10, his family emigrated to Australia, where most people have never even heard of the genocide his family endured. That’s where football comes into the story again.
So let’s say on a weekend, we play against an Australian team in the league, and they see our team there, Rohingya United. They will automatically wonder, “What is Rohingya?” They might think it’s a funny word or something, but the point is they’ll still ask. And from that, you know, we’ll be able to share our story and tell people about the plight of Rohingya.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next time on The Long Game.