WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Helping Brittney Griner, Why Players Spend Offseasons Overseas

The WNBA commissioner details the efforts by the WNBA in conjunction with other organizations to confirm the safety of athlete Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia over a month ago

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a portrait during the WNBA Media Day on May 6, 2021, at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
Brittney Griner. Photo: Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty

A full-court effort has been launched to secure Brittney Griner's safety following her arrest and detainment in Russia on drug charges, and the WNBA is actively engaged with, hopefully, orchestrating the return home of their superstar athlete.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert tells PEOPLE in this week's issue that the league has been coordinating with the Phoenix Mercury, "her agent, authorities, administration, strategist experts ... it's a huge coordination to find the best way to get her home the quickest."

Griner, who Engelbert calls "one of the biggest stars in the history of the W," has been detained in Russia for over a month. The Russia Federal Customs Service said in a previous statement that the athlete — who, like many professional women's basketball players, plays overseas in Russia during the WNBA offseason — had flown to Moscow from New York in February when a customs service dog at the Sheremetyevo International Airport indicated that drugs were possibly located inside her carry-on bag.

Customs officers searched the bag and allegedly found vape cartridges that contained liquid with hash oil. Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was later taken into custody and a criminal case against her has been opened. If convicted of her alleged charges, Russian officials said Griner could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison, according to CNN.

Since then, multiple U.S. Congress members have been working with the State Department to handle Griner's case — which is happening amid the backdrop of deteriorating relations with Russia, who, under President Vladimir Putin's lead, which currently waging a war against Ukraine.

Engelbert, who joined the league in 2019 after decades at Deloitte, tells PEOPLE that it's not uncommon for the WNBA's players to opt to play overseas during the offseason. She disputes, however, the notion that players deciding to do so is still borne out of low pay, especially after the league and the WNBA Player's Association reached a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2020.

"What we did with the collective bargaining agreement in 2020 — that was only two years ago; people forget that — we tripled the top players' pay," says Engelbert. "Players have an opportunity to make between $500-650,000 at the top end including salaries."

The Jan. 2020 CBA allows athletes the opportunity to make over $500k annually for their four months of play, including salary, bonuses, in-season tournament-style play, league, and team marketing deals. In addition, the league launched career-oriented programs for players during the offseason — which, in 2021, pointed to a decline in players going overseas, the WNBA said. Some have even taken on marketing roles for the league, or are WNBA internships for the offseason.

Yes, "while pay equity is improving, many players are still opting for overseas play," Engelbert says.

Engelbert believes that some athletes have continued to play internationally due to their "passion" for their sport and desire to play year-round while they still can. "People are still going to go overseas if they want to play," she asserts.

Adds Engelbert, "They want to play as much as they can while their bodies can still do that, so we'll support it, but we're working on models that will keep more of our players in the U.S. for longer periods of time in the offseason."

It's a big change from 2016, when Griner was early in her Russian career with UMMC Ekaterinburg and spoke to ESPN's Kate Fagan about what she called, then, a "life experience." At the time, the outlet noted that a third of the Russian team was American, and most were there to supplement their WNBA salary. ESPN said in 2016 that WNBA players were, on average, making $76,500 in the WNBA, while more tenured athletes earned closer to $109,500. (The current average WNBA base salary is closer to $130,000.) For her time with UMMC that season, Griner earned just under $1 million.

Regardless of why Griner has continued to return to UMMC, Engelbert says now the only focus is making sure the star athlete is back before the WNBA's season begins in early May.

"Anyone who meets Brittney, the first thing you walk away with is how kind she is," says Engelbert. "She's just very low key and very humble. ... She's given strong support for the LGBTQ+ community, is an advocate [for social justice]. ... No matter who you talk to, if they know Brittney, you get that kind of story about how iconic she is and what a role model she is, both on and off the court."

Assures Engelbert, "Our number-one priority is to get Brittney home safely as quickly as we can. "

Updated by
Lindsay Kimble

Lindsay Kimble is a Senior Digital News Editor and the Sports Editor for PEOPLE Digital. She's worked at PEOPLE for over seven years as a writer, reporter and editor across our Entertainment, Lifestyle and News teams, covering everything from the Super Bowl to the Met Gala. She's been nominated for the ASME NEXT Awards for Journalists Under 30, and previously wrote for Us Weekly while on staff at Wenner Media.

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