Ukraine-Russia conflict underscores grave dangers of WNBA players being overseas

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

Eastern Europe has become the focus of our planet in the last few days and weeks with a country in that part of the world under intense siege from a neighboring power.

One cannot turn on our televisions, listen to our radios or read newspapers and online sites without seeing at least something on what has become war in Ukraine, perpetuated by a Russia aided by delusions of grandeur and aspirations on returning to its former status.

As one can expect, the newfound conflict that is developing in Ukraine seemingly by the minute has had ripple effects throughout society – including throughout international sport.

Last week, it was announced that the final of the UEFA Champions League will be moved from St. Petersburg in Russia to Paris in France. Paris is, of course, also the host city for the 2024 Olympics. UEFA’s Champions League final is slated to take place at the Stade de France on May 28.

In addition, Formula One, the premier racing league of the world, recently stripped Russia of the right to host one of its Grand Prix events. Earlier this year, Formula One also announced that it will be bringing one of its Grand Prix events to a new city – Miami.

Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens will host a Formula One Grand Prix from May 6-8.

The sports world is rightfully responding to the senseless violence coming from Russia at Ukraine’s expense with disgust – and losing the UEFA Champions League Final plus a Grand Prix should surely help in punishing the Russian economy as tougher international sanctions continue to hit Russia from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and European Union nations.

Then there is the matter of the WNBA – specifically WNBA players who play in overseas countries like Russia to make up for the fact that their W salaries still are not sufficient enough to warrant not having to hoop in other countries.

This tweet from Dallas Wings superstar Arike Ogunbowale says all one needs to know.

For those that may have forgot, Ogunbowale plays for Russia’s Dyanmo Kursk team during the WNBA’s offseason. She is one of several notables from the W’s ranks who also sport Dynamo Kursk’s colors on the overseas circuit. Those also include Natasha Howard (New York Liberty) and Epiphanny Prince (Seattle Storm).

Sports Illustrated received this statement in regards to WNBA players and the unrest unfolding in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that players with WNBA experience being overseas has led to them potentially being caught in a dangerous situation.

In May of last year, fighting broke out in the Middle East – another chapter in the ongoing saga between Israel and Palestine.

Alexis Peterson, who currently plays for Maccabi Bnot Ashdod in Israel, tweeted about what was happening.

Peterson was drafted in 2017 out of Syracuse by the Storm and also previously signed training camp contracts with the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever.

It gets talked about regularly within the WNBA family – the aim to have more of its players be able to stay in the United States with going overseas as only a want as opposed to a need. Obviously, this is because of the salaries overseas teams like Dynamo Kursk and UMMC Ekaterinburg will pay to WNBA players as opposed to WNBA teams themselves.

The CBA signed in 2020, before the pandemic, was meant to address the issues with WNBA salaries as well as overseas travel. The recently completed successful first season of Athletes Unlimited basketball is also giving many a baller who has hooped in the W another chance at making a roster as several have translated their Athletes Unlimited success into training camp contracts with WNBA teams.

The WNBA-overseas conundrum is also receiving increased attention after Breanna Stewart made recent comments ripping the “prioritization clause” in the CBA which essentially requires players to put the interests of their W teams over their overseas clubs. That clause goes into effect beginning with the 2023 season and was a byproduct of the 12 WNBA owners agreeing to salary increases. She plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg – in Russia.

UMMC Ekaterinburg’s roster reads like a who’s who of WNBA talent – including Stewart, Allie Quigley, Jonquel Jones, Brittney Griner, Maria Vadeeva, Emma Meesseman, Alex Bentley and Courtney Vandersloot. ESPN has reported that several players are planning to leave Russia, but those players are not being identified for their safety.

Who knows how the CBA negotiations would have gone if the salary increases were placed in said agreement without the prioritization clause? This is sure to be an even heavier topic of discussion next year once the clause goes into effect. Let us also remember that Stewart injured her Achilles overseas which sidelined her for the entirety of the 2019 WNBA season – and greatly hindered the Storm’s chance at repeating as champions that season after sweeping the Washington Mystics in the 2018 Finals.

The exploits of WNBA players overseas is always a hot-button discussion in WNBA circles. Teams even promote how their players are performing overseas in social media posts – such as the Las Vegas Aces with #AcesAbroad and the Liberty with #LibsAbroad. But as what is happening in Ukraine illustrates, the potential pitfalls with going to an overseas country to play ball go far beyond potential injury, adjusting to another country’s culture and the strain all of that travel takes on the body.

It includes the potential of going to a country where political unrest (or, in this case, geopolitical unrest) can have potentially dire consequences as what Ukraine is seeing right now. And that can put innocent players like Ogunbowale and Peterson in danger.

The WNBA has to eventually get to a point where their salaries are such (and that the presentation of the league is such as was the case with AU) that more players no longer feel as if they have to go overseas and put themselves in potentially dangerous situations like Palestine-Israel and Ukraine-Russia. That is part of the reason why it is baffling that Cathy Engelbert is not using any of its $75 million capital gains investment to go towards salaries or improving the player experience.

As Ukraine-Russia illustrates, the risks of going overseas far outweigh the benefits – and the increased salaries are the reason why players are hooping for these teams. Engelbert and others within the WNBA would likely talk about the league’s current economics being the reason why salaries are what they are (in addition to the CBA), but if that is the case, Adam Silver and the NBA needs to make the W more of a priority.

After all, if they can find more money to invest in a potential high school-to-G League pipeline (when G League attendance is nowhere near WNBA attendance), then surely some more of those greenbacks can be used to make life easier for WNBA players. After all, they simply want to play basketball and spread social awareness without having to put themselves potentially in danger of doing so. But that is the risk of going overseas.

Doing more to increase player salaries is actually a benefit for the WNBA because it also increases the likelihood that more players will be visible during the offseason, therefore, increasing the league’s reach. Imagine a WNBA where more of its biggest names such as Candace Parker, Chiney Ogwumike and Betnijah Laney were staying stateside during the offseason. Those are three big names who bring eyeballs to the WNBA and money in the W’s bank account.

Hopefully this is something that comes up in the next CBA. The prioritization clause will surely be a topic of discussion – if not the topic of discussion next season. As for now, we hope that Ukraine is able to defend itself against Russia’s military because Ukraine is a nation whose people deserve to live in peace under a democracy just as Russia’s people deserve to live in peace – under a democracy that it currently is not right now.

And the WNBA is a league where its player base – which is 80% Black women – should be able to make a comfortable living playing the sport they love without potentially getting caught in the crosshairs of scenarios they did not ask for.