Editor’s Note: Russia’s judicial kidnapping and sham trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner highlights, if more attention is even needed, Russia’s abysmal human rights record and how Moscow manipulates people for its political ends. Jason Blazakis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, however, argues that Griner’s sentencing reveals an even deeper problem: the importance of thinking about gender inequality as a national security issue. Griner, unfortunately, is not alone and a failure to improve U.S. policies puts other female athletes at risk.
Earlier this month, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian judge to nine years in prison for drug offenses. She may spend that time at a Russian penal colony unless diplomatic intervention by the United States results in her freedom. Griner’s plight in Russia underscores that gender inequality, including the gender pay gap, is an important national security issue and that the Biden administration must treat it as such.
Griner, a Black woman and one of the highest paid players in the WNBA, made $221,450 during the 2021-2022 season. While to the average American this is a lot of money, in professional sports, especially compared to Griner’s male counterparts, it is very little. In fact, Los Angeles Lakers star basketball player LeBron James makes $542,377 per game—more than twice what Griner makes in a whole season. This gender pay gap helps explain why Griner went overseas to augment her salary.
Griner is not the only American WNBA player who has potentially been exposed to risk by playing overseas in an authoritarian country. Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and many others have also played in Russia’s professional basketball league, or in other authoritarian countries like China. Doing so often offers big paydays. When Griner played in China in 2014 after her first year in the WNBA, she made $600,000 for four months of work—more than 12 times her WNBA salary at the time.
Griner has become a high-priced chip in a dangerous political negotiation between Russia and the United States. The United States has reportedly been willing to trade a dangerous arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for Griner’s freedom. There is also little doubt that negotiations over Griner’s freedom are affecting how the United States responds to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Though there is bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has requested that the United States apply the label, the Biden administration has been reluctant to heed these calls because they could result in a complete rupture in diplomatic relations with Moscow and would further complicate efforts to bring Griner home.
Put simply, there’s a direct line from the gender pay gap in U.S. sports to women athletes’ participation in more lucrative leagues in authoritarian countries to, now, U.S. foreign policy calculations regarding how it supports Ukraine. The gender pay gap in the United States is a national security threat with international implications. While this is playing out between the United States and Russia today, it could affect U.S. relations with other adversarial countries in the future.
Other female athletes are potentially at risk of becoming bargaining chips in high-stakes gamesmanship between world powers. The recent ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan could put American professional women athletes at high risk. The Griner case illustrates that snatching an American, especially one with some notoriety like Griner, can be politically lucrative.
The Biden administration should recognize that the gender pay gap represents a national security threat and act accordingly. Officials are reportedly close to releasing the new National Security Strategy, possibly as soon as September. The last National Security Strategy, issued by the Trump administration in 2017, emphasized an “America First,” go-it-alone approach. The Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, a precursor to its National Security Strategy, is silent on gender pay gaps as a national security threat. That should be corrected in the new, more thorough National Security Strategy.
The Biden administration is serious about gender as a national security issue. I know this firsthand from when I volunteered to work for the Biden campaign and was part of his Diversity in National Security Working Group. Of course, initiatives and working groups associated with political campaigning don’t always translate to policy once in office, but to Biden’s credit, diversity in national security has been more than just a talking point for the administration. For example, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance emphasized the need to treat gender-based violence as a national security challenge. That’s an important step. The Biden administration also explained, in its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, that specialized analysis was needed to better understand how gender-motivated violence can have implications for domestic terrorist threats. That’s also a positive step, especially since violence directed against women by “involuntary celibate” extremists has been detailed as a significant domestic threat in a recent U.S. Secret Service report.
While it is important to emphasize the need to counter gender-based violence, the Biden administration should go further to address gender issues in national security. The gender pay gap creates underlying risk that women, such as Griner, assume—and that then can have implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security. It should be addressed head-on, and the forthcoming National Security Strategy represents the perfect vehicle for doing that. Incorporating gender pay equality into the strategy would encourage domestic and national security agencies to develop policies, regulations, and procedures to close the pay gap. Until that happens, the U.S. national security apparatus will have more Griner-like situations to resolve. Because of gender pay inequalities, American women, and likely not just athletes, will seek ways to bolster their incomes outside of the United States. This will create more supply for authoritarian states that will not hesitate to take advantage by taking them hostage, under the guise of legal machinations. The hostage-taking will hamstring U.S. foreign policy and result in more exchanges that, like the potential release of Bout, could harm national security. The solution is to close the pay gap and create a more equitable society at home.