Brittney Griner sits in a Russian jail cell, trapped in a legal system with few protections. Her case, along with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has prompted the State Department to issue stern warnings urging Americans not to travel to Russia.
Yet dozens of American basketball players are still planning to play in Russia this season.
USA TODAY Sports has identified at least 31 men and one woman who are expected to play – with the signings confirmed by either the player's representation or the team itself – in Russia’s top professional league, a development that several basketball executives and global security experts view as highly risky considering the ongoing tensions between the American and Russian governments.
“I don’t think any Americans should willingly go play basketball in Russia right now,” said Dr. Dani Gilbert, a hostage negotiation expert and Rosenwald Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. “I think Americans are putting themselves in potential danger by traveling to countries where governments have shown a willingness to use their criminal justice system to take Americans hostage.”
Most of the players heading to Russia are a long way off the NBA's radar, though a few of them – James Ennis, Vince Hunter and Malcolm Thomas – have some experience in the league. Unique Thompson, whose deal is not yet signed, was on the Dallas Wings' training camp roster this spring.
Though players pursuing careers in hostile countries is nothing new — Iran’s league, for example, has been known to offer six-figure salaries and generally treat Americans well — Griner’s detainment has put a spotlight within the basketball world on both the arbitrary nature of Russian law enforcement and the U.S. government’s limited powers in bringing jailed citizens home.
The State Department has been unequivocal in warning Americans not to enter Russia under any circumstances, noting that private citizens “have been interrogated without cause and threatened by Russian officials,” and could become victims of harassment or extortion and be convicted of crimes without transparency or credible evidence.
But even such an explicit travel advisory does not have as much resonance within the larger basketball community as the reality of seeing Griner, a two-time Olympian and one of the most prominent female athletes in the world, get sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after Russian authorities arrested her at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 for allegedly having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Griner, who is considered “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. government, pleaded guilty – saying she accidentally packed the cartridges – and has appealed her conviction. She was sentenced on Aug. 4.
“I think we should be boycotting the place. It’s not right," said NBA agent Aaron Goodwin, who told USA TODAY Sports he promptly alerted the NBA Players’ Association and Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, once Russian teams and agents contacted him this summer while trying to sign one of his clients.
The NBPA and Colas had no comment on the signings. The WNBPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
“We shouldn’t support it no matter how much money it is," Goodwin said. “To sign new deals is totally disrespectful to Brittney Griner and to USA women’s basketball.”
The State Department told USA TODAY Sports via email its “do not travel” advisory for Russia applies to all U.S. citizens “regardless of the purpose of travel.” The Biden administration, which called Griner’s detainment “unacceptable,” has attempted to engage the Russians on a potential prisoner swap. But the timetable and the terms of a potential agreement are still unclear, particularly with diplomatic relations so strained by the U.S. government supporting Ukraine.
Trisonya Thompson Abraham, a veteran women's agent, said players choosing to go are “playing Russian roulette, no pun intended.”
'This is not the time to go to Russia'
“Let’s be honest — the U.S. is at war with Russia right now,” said Mike Cound, a player agent who represents more than 60 women who play professionally around the world. “This is not the time to go to Russia.”
At the beginning of the WNBA season, Cound surveyed his players and posed a hypothetical question: If he had a “nice offer” from a team in Russia, would anyone be interested in playing there? Only one player, Cound said, suggested that it might depend on how much money was being offered. The rest immediately said no.
That mirrors the prevailing sentiment in the international basketball community, particularly in Europe, where the fallout from war in Ukraine still ripples across everyday life from energy policy to an influx of refugees, creating housing shortages in some countries.
One European-based agent, who spoke with USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the situation, said it would be unethical to allow a player to sign in Russia this season. Another, who lives in a country where the threat of Russian aggression is omnipresent, said the idea of a player signing there right now is so inflammatory it wouldn't even be under consideration.
The French Basketball Federation even took the extraordinary step on Aug. 1 of banning any player or coach from the national team who signed with a Russian or Belarusian team while the war is ongoing. Thomas Heurtel, who came off the bench for France’s silver medal-winning team at the Tokyo Olympics last year, reportedly backed out of a lucrative deal with Zenit Saint Petersburg as a result of the policy. USA Basketball said it does not have a policy and FIBA did not respond to a request for comment.
But the relative scarcity of players willing to play in Russia has created a situation where teams in the VTB United League — the top tier of men’s professional basketball — are willing to pay more than they otherwise might. For a certain group of players, particularly those who have perhaps played in lower-tier international leagues previously, they might view that opportunity as worth the risk.
Though Russian teams are not finished finalizing their rosters, few of the Americans who have signed to this point are recognizable names. The most prominent would be Ennis, a 32-year old who has played 395 NBA games across 10 different franchises. He is one of five Americans on the roster of BC Samara.
Many of the Americans who are committed to Russian teams at this point have never played in that league before, raising the question whether they know what they’re getting into.
That responsibility should largely fall on their agents, many of whom take great care even in normal times to impress upon players what life will be like as an American player in that environment.
“But obviously with the ongoing war and the whole climate right now, there’s a whole other conversation to be had,” said Andy Shiffman, the executive vice president of basketball representation for Priority Sports who represents several international players. “Typically as an agent, I'd say, ‘I can sell you on the basketball side and the financial side of it, but I’m not going to push you into a situation where you'd be uncomfortable or hesitant or looking over your shoulder.’ We've had guys turn down opportunities in Russia and I can’t fault them for that. You’re there for 10 months and you can't just pick up and leave because you're afraid something will happen.”
The terrifying unknown
For those that are going to Russia, however, the Griner situation underscores that they don’t know what they don't know. Top women’s players for many years saw Russia as a place where they could make a significant amount of money in the WNBA offseason and enjoy the privilege of living something close to a Western lifestyle.
But with Griner in a jail cell for more than six months, the idea of living in a protected bubble there has been completely shattered.
“We already have a player that's being used as a pawn over practically nothing,” said Cound. “What if they want another pawn? That’s enough of a reason to not go over there.”
The other factor for American players, particularly on the women's side, is the risk of being shunned by their peers. Though the WNBA cannot and will not dictate where players play in the offseason, it would be difficult to reconcile the league’s “We are BG” campaign to protest her detainment with her colleagues taking money from Russian teams.
“I can only say it’s something I wouldn’t do,” said James Wade, the head coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky, who coached Griner at UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2017-18. “I’m not in their shoes. I don’t understand their (motivations). I just know that, from my standpoint, it would be really tough for me to put myself in that situation, especially right now, especially with BG being so far away from home.”
So far, only one American woman, Thompson, is expected to play in Russia this season.
A 2021 Auburn graduate who has previously played for Sparkta&K in Vidnoje, Russia – about 50 minutes from Moscow – Thompson was the 19th overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.
Julianne Dinda of Shark Sports Managements, Thompson’s agency, said that Thompson, who is currently playing in Australia and not available for comment, “supports Brittney and we support Brittney, too. At the same time, her (Thompson’s) goal is to get back into the WNBA” and playing in Russia gives Thompson the best chance to do that. Dinda said Shark Sports has been in regular contact with the U.S. government to assure players’ safety, adding that she’s heard of “multiple (American) women” who have signed to play in Russia in the coming months. She did not provide any other players' names.
Despite the State Department laying out all the risks for Americans taking these jobs, there is little anyone can do to prevent it from happening as long as Russia allows the players into its country.
That potentially serves a two-pronged purpose for the Russian regime: Allowing desperate teams to fill their rosters while creating a propaganda narrative that can be useful domestically.
“It feeds into their perception of plausible deniability if Americans continue to go over there and are not arrested,” Gilbert said. “But it doesn’t make the (legal) process legit.”
Meanwhile, Russian teams are still working hard to paint a rosy picture for American players who sign there and allay fears that something related to the war or politically motivated could compromise their safety.
“When coaches recruit our players and try to convince them to come to Russia, they say, ‘if I felt unsafe or was worried, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have moved my family here,’" Shiffman said. “We try to get as much information as we possibly can. I don't think they’re going to be playing basketball and having fans come to games if it was that unsafe.
"But with everything going on between the U.S. and Russia, I'd advise my guys if you're a foreigner you’d have to be very wary. People in power may look at you differently and you have to be very careful. It's my job to advise a player not to go somewhere if I had any knowledge that made me feel like you're stepping into a war zone."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner saga doesn't deter Americans from Russian league hoops