The sports experience for Black women has rewards and risks.
So why was Britney Griner, one of the best women’s basketball players in the world, playing basketball in a Russian league?
She, like many other female professional athletes, had to take her athletic talents outside of the United States in order to supplement their income, a decision the majority of their male counterparts don’t have to make.
Britney Griner’s unlawful detainment demonstrates that, despite their athletic talents, the safety of Black women, especially Black queer women, is always uncertain.
Opportunities within the United States are severely limited in women’s basketball. There are only 12 WNBA teams with a limited number of available roster spots each year. Only 36 women hear their names called on Draft Day, but that doesn’t guarantee them a spot. Last year, 16 of those 36 draftees were waived before the season began, and another six were waived or released shortly after the season started.
Given this reality, many women must travel outside of the US if they want to continue playing basketball professionally.
But even many rostered WNBA players travel abroad to play during the offseason, as their earning potential is much higher internationally. Top WNBA players can earn nearly four times their WNBA salary when playing internationally, which is tough to turn down despite safety concerns and foreign politics.
Griner’s plight has laid open the fears many female athletes, specifically Black female athletes, have regarding their safety abroad.
Researchers within other academic disciplines, like myself, are working to understand how sports and geography impact the lived and professional experiences of Black female athletes. In my research, I’ve learned that these experiences significantly shape their personal and professional identities. This is unsurprising given the way these athletes occupy space and their interactions with the places they find themselves.
I found that the experience Black female volleyball players have with racism abroad is similar to their experience in the United States. This includes being oversexualized, expected to play up racial stereotypes, and having their hair touched without their consent.
They also experience racism abroad in wildly different ways, such as being spit on, feeling isolated due to teammates purposely not speaking English, and accusations of being sex workers.
These experiences compound existing feelings of being a complete outsider and often feeling unsafe in spaces. Being Black outside of the United States is a different experience that many professional Black female athletes aren’t aware of or prepared for.
Yet this isn’t unique to just Black female athletes.
In an interview for NPR podcast Codeswitch, a Black art historian, David Dibosa, shared what his Blackness meant to him in Europe and how the spaces he operated in often do not feel as if they are meant for him. “As soon as I cross a border, I’m black in a different way because while race is a political fact, it’s also a social and psychological construction. One actually feels it. It’s not just something that one has to think about. One feels it. You know, it comes from the airport or wherever and starts to move around a different city. When it’s looked at in a different way, people come close or don’t in a different way. And people address [you] in a different way. They’re subtle, and yet, they’re palpable in every move that we make.”
Much of what Black female athletes experience happens at the intersection of racism and sexism.
When Black female athletes cross borders to play professionally in Europe, Asia, and Latin America they are navigating new rules, norms, cultures, stereotypes, and systems (Butler, 2015; Sweeney, 2014; Willis, 2015). As they enter and move around Europe they describe feeling bothered by the ways they are viewed and treated–a consistent flow of microaggressions. They are viewed through the white gaze, as though they are alien and inferior–as Black bodies have been throughout history.
Blackness is not only a social construct but is considered a problematic contrast to the desired whiteness (Mapedzahama & Kwansah-Aidoo, 2017). This white gaze consistently follows Black female athletes to remind them that they are not only unwelcome but also invading white space.
Given all of this, Griner’s experience shows that we must continue to prepare Black female athletes for what they may experience when playing internationally.
The reality is that Black female athletes have to consider risking their well-being and safety in order to continue their livelihood as Britney Griner’s situation has shown us. As a result, they need to be informed about the risk to their safety that comes with the money.
Ways to educate the athletes can come in many forms, whether it be through their college coaches, conversations with current professional female athletes who play internationally, academic research, the WNBA, Athletes Unlimited, or journalism.
We are always at risk and, even more, unprotected by either the teams we play for or the United States government.
Griner’s situation has shown us that through its inaction, protection will not come from our country, but silence will. Some may argue that Griner and other athletes are making a choice to play internationally and should take the ownness for their decisions.
Regardless of a person’s opinion or reason, an athlete should not have to worry if their country will help them in their time of crisis, as Griner has shown in her handwritten letter to Biden which speaks of her fear of potentially being in Russia forever.
Many Black female athletes wonder if it could have been them. Unknowingly caught in a dire situation that in some ways could be life or death, depending on the country the incident occurred.
Athletes are currently unsure of playing in Russia due to the Griner situation as well as the US sanctions against Russia. Unfortunately, as Medgal says, the lure of the Russian payday—the chance to accumulate generational wealth—is so great that if relations ever return to “normal” and the money spigots once again start flowing, they believe that they or their clients would most likely return.
Money vs safety.