Griner Ordeal Should Renew Talks on WNBA, NBA Pay Gaps

  • Iciss Tillis, a former WNBA power forward, said she hopes Brittney Griner’s ordeal highlights league pay disparities.
  • Last week, Griner was released from Russian custody after being detained since February.
  • “WNBA players don’t get an off-season,” Tillis said. “You’re just in back-to-back leagues to trying to make ends meet.”

A former WNBA player who competed in Russia says she hopes Brittney Griner’s torturous ordeal reignites the conversation about pay inequity in the women’s league versus the NBA, and how it pushes WNBA players overseas.

“I was very happy for her. I can’t imagine what she went through,” Iciss Tillis, a former WNBA power forward, told Insider. “I hope that one of the positives that come out of Brittney’s release is that there can be some true movement towards change in addressing the pay disparity between the men and the women’s game.”

WNBA players typically receive meager pay in America compared to the millions they command playing in foreign countries such as Russia, Italy, and Turkey. Griner earned a league maximum of $227,900 annual base salary from the Phoenix Mercury, for instance. But was able to make $1 million per season with Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, Insider previously reported.

Griner in China.

STR/AFP via Getty Images



grinnera WNBA superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist, often played in Russia before her she was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport in mid-February after officials accused her of possessing hashish oil in her luggage.

then, later in her detainment, she was moved to one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, known for its brutal conditionsbefore its release on December 9.

Tillis, now a labor and employment attorney after playing in the league for roughly five years, told Insider that if WNBA players’ salaries increased, fewer players would have to make the precarious choice of going to a foreign country increase their mediocre salary.

“The women would be able to stay at home,” she continued. “WNBA players, a lot of them are mothers and shouldn’t have to constantly live out of a suitcase. It would be great for them to be able to make enough money where they don’t have to go abroad.”

‘WNBA players don’t get an off-season’

Indiana Fever forward Deanna Jackson, left, drives to the basket against Detroit Shock guard Iciss Tillis during the second half in Indianapolis, Friday, July 16, 2004. Jackson finished with 19 points in the Fever 85-73 win.

Indiana Fever forward Deanna Jackson, left, drives to the basket against Detroit Shock guard Iciss Tillis during the second half in Indianapolis, Friday, July 16, 2004. Jackson finished with 19 points in the Fever 85-73 win.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)



Selected as a first round draft pick in 2004, Tillis went on to play for the Detroit Shock, New York Liberty, and LA Sparks. In addition to Russia, Tillis has played overseas in multiple countries, including Poland, Italy, South Korea, and France, among others.

“The only way women have to supplement their income is by going to play abroad. It’s a grueling process because you are just going from one season to the next,” Tillis said.

“The men, because they only have one season, they have a true off-season. WNBA players don’t get an off-season. You’re just in back-to-back leagues to trying to make ends meet.”

Before Griner’s detainment, Russia was touted as a prime destination for players because of competitive salaries. Tillis said she played for the women’s basketball team Sparta&K, for instance.

“Russia, in my opinion, rolled out the red carpet for women’s basketball. It really changed the way women basketball players were paid abroad. It was just a different experience,” she added. “The people that own the teams in Russia really go out of their way, particularly for the WNBA players. [They] shower them with really nice apartments, and you have your own driver.”

WNBA legend Sue Bird echoed Similar sentiments in an interview earlier this year, saying in Russia, she was paid 10 times her first WNBA salary, which was under $60,000 a year. And now, with high-paying countries like Russia off the table, other countries may decide not to pay as much, Tillis said.

Nearly half of WNBA players, 67 out of 144, decided to still go overseas after Griner’s detention, according to The Associated Press. However, none are competing in Russia.

“Our players are going to do what’s best for them in consultation with their families and their agents. And we’re certainly here to help them think through the security risks and things like that,” Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the outlet.

Attorney Iciss Tillis is a former WNBA power forward who played on the Detroit Shock, New York Liberty and LaA Sparks.

Attorney Iciss Tillis is a former WNBA power forward who played on the Detroit Shock, New York Liberty and LA Sparks.

Courtesy of Iciss Tillis/TheSolutionPR



With Russia out of the conversation, Tillis raised concerns that if no players are going where they pay top dollar, then other countries could lowball players.

Bloomberg reported, for instance, an emerging trend of other foreign teams lowering their salaries for players in addition to no longer seeking top-notch talent due to players not being able to compete in Russia or China because of the ongoing Ukraine war and China’s strict COVID- 19 restrictions.

“This could really negatively impact the supplemental income that women were making overseas. If they’re like, ‘Okay. Well, Russia’s out the picture, you know? Now, we don’t have to pay those high-dollar contracts, We can lower them and see if the women will still take it,'” she added.

“That’s sort of the situation that the women are in and it’s very sad that the women have not been able to really gain the recognition that is deserved here in the States,” Tillis said.

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