Lindsay Kagawa Colas
Commentary, Republished with permission
Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2022
Editor’s note: It’s been nearly a year since Brittney Griner, the 32 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained in Russia on Feb. 17, 2022 when authorities accused her of “smuggling” less than the weight of a paperclip of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner, who had a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis for her knee pain and joint inflammation, stated in her defense that she was forced to sign documents that she did not understand while detained and did not intend to break Russian laws. On Aug. 4, 2022, Griner was sentenced to nine years at a Russian prison colony, a punishment that the Biden-Administration and activists believe did not suit the crime and that Griner was being used as a political pawn while tensions between Russia and the United States had mounted since Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. This article was originally written for the Los Angeles Times and titled “Commentary: Why Brittney Griner was in Russia, and what it says about women’s sports in the U.S.” Go to latimes.com/sports/story/2022-04-26/brittney-griner-russia-pay-gap to read the original story. Colas — Brittney Griner’s agent and granddaughter of Japanese concentration camp survivors — shares why Griner was in Russia in the first place, her fight for civil rights and opportunities for professional women athletes and what we can all do moving forward to ensure the gap of gender disparity is closed and all Americans currently held hostage abroad are brought home.
I woke up to the phone ringing just after 5 a.m. in Portland. My colleague was calling from the East Coast. “Lindz, it’s BG. She’s been taken into custody at the airport. She has her phone and can text.” Brittney Griner, who had spent several WNBA off seasons starring for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite Russian basketball club team, had been traveling back to Ekaterinburg from the U.S., connecting in Moscow when she was detained. She was now in the custody of Russian officials at the airport and, for the next several hours, I tracked her location on my phone and continued texting her, trying to stay with her as long as I could.
Staying with her was what Brittney had asked me to do when I started representing her as her sports agent right out of college in 2013. Though she was projected to be the No. 1 pick overall in the WNBA draft, the most important conversation we had early on wasn’t about endorsements or fame. From my experience in the business, I knew that success on the court for women has never been enough to guarantee women similar commercial rewards to men. Only women athletes regarded as conventionally beautiful by a Western standard, “feminine” — or simply perceived to be straight, who were both white and often less important, successful at winning, got any hint of endorsement opportunities. The WNBA and its players, in all of their intersectional power and beauty, are still waiting for society to catch up.
Fighting to shift how the marketplace views and values women athletes has been at the center of my entire career as a sports agent. For Brittney, the most important things I could do to support her career and ensure she maximized opportunity were 1) to make her as much money on the court, as quickly as possible and 2) to always tell her the truth, do my best to protect her and be there for her, no matter what. Before that February morning, that included advising her (along with several other clients) to take advantage of the opportunity to play in Russia for the highest paying team in the world. Ever since that day, it has meant working furiously to try to summon every resource I can to help her, so that I can keep another promise I made after she was formally charged and minutes before she was led away. “BG,” I said, “We love you. We are here. Be brave. We will get you home.”
So while her detention has risen to the top of the news for its geopolitical relevance, supercharged by celebrity, at its underbelly lies a story of gender pay disparity here in the United States.
I spend hours in communication every day with a dedicated group of people who are working to get BG home. It is a community filled with activists — including WNBA players who’ve led some of our most important cultural conversations in recent years. It’s a community that chooses its words carefully, that’s used to moving together as a unit. For now, that community is doing its best to trust in BG’s legal team and have confidence in the White House’s commitment to doing everything in their power to bring Brittney home. Yet as the process plays out, knowing that we cannot get into the details of her case, I must talk about why Brittney was in Russia in the first place.
Those unfamiliar with the layered challenges women face in professional sports will probably wonder why an athlete so accomplished — a three-time All-American, ESPY award winner, seven-time All-Star, All-WNBA selection, two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion universally liked with a megawatt smile who gives the warmest hugs you’ll ever receive, set an NCAA record (among women and men) for blocked shots, keeps shoes in the trunk of her to car to give to people experiencing houselessness around Phoenix and does volunteer work with kids who are bullied as she was as a child — would need to leave the United States to find offseason work.
The reality is that more than half of the women in the WNBA currently supplement their incomes by playing for professional clubs overseas from the end of the WNBA season to the start of the next. To date, the largest contracts paid to women basketball players have come from Russian and Turkish clubs. Top athletes can make six to seven times the maximum WNBA salary overseas — and the disparity as recently as 2019 was 10 to 15 times more than WNBA salaries. Then you factor in endorsements, with a first-round NBA draft pick securing an average of 10 times more than women of the same caliber via shoe contracts. That’s about $500,000 to $1 million of lost revenue per year the women are going overseas to make up. Most of the players who choose to play overseas get only a week or two off between the end of one season and the start of their next. In fact, the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards) of women’s basketball has been to capture NCAA, WNBA, Olympic and Euroleague titles.
It’s no secret that women in professional sports are paid a lot less than men. There is no magic WNBA commissioner wand that will allow Cathy Engelbert
to immediately pay players higher salaries — and demanding that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association negotiate a larger percentage of revenue for players won’t make much of a difference without more revenue growth.
And yet the same system that rendered a woman who is a generational talent nearly invisible until she was detained in Russia offers a rich ecosystem of income opportunities that are almost exclusively available for men.
The key to unlocking economic opportunity for women in sports lies in increased investment across four key, interconnected areas — media, sponsorships, merchandise and ticketing.
Bigger media investments and more networks committing to airing women’s sports in regular, recurring programming blocks have been shown to increase awareness and result in more fans tuning in.
Increased sponsorships, in turn — and a reimagined application of sponsor dollars that prioritize and properly value women’s leagues, teams and individual athletes — will make it possible for more women to sustain (and for more girls to aspire to) healthy and meaningful careers in sports. Sponsor dollars paid directly to WNBA stars would provide the fastest, most direct route to dramatically decrease the number of players who go overseas to supplement their income.
And investments in merchandise featuring and celebrating women’s sports teams and athletes will also deepen fan participation and help grow the community around women’s sports. Right now, demand is already outpacing supply and merch is too hard to find as it is — as anyone who’s ever tried to find the WNBA logo to shop on the Fanatics homepage will know.
Now we have a high-stakes example of how economic disparity can have terrifying consequences. This is why I am calling on companies to commit to investing three times the resources in women’s sports that they invest in men’s, to help accelerate sports industry parity. Data shows that a dollar spent on women’s sports is the best dollar spent in sports because it provides an outsized return for brands. So while spending equally on men and women is a good start (and should be celebrated, but also be the agreed-upon minimum), any company that truly wants to lead in closing the gap will need to do more. It’s time to truly, measurably bet on women.
The investment is smart and it’s overdue.
With the lives and freedom of players at stake, we can’t afford to wait or to continue to accept the same mistakes.
We must acknowledge our shared responsibility and take action.
An increase of three times is also symbolic. The 75-year-old NBA is three times older than the 25- year-old WNBA — and three times evokes the “rule of three,” a “just-right” Goldilocks test and, for good measure, is the jersey number of Diana Taurasi, who was recently voted the WNBA’s GOAT (greatest of all time) by its fans, is one of Brittney’s teammates and was my very first client as an agent. If Diana was measured by success, charisma and skill — and if not for being a woman — she would surely be the world’s most famous athlete.
Ultimately, a more meaningful commitment from the wider sports community is needed to sustain growth for the league and its stars in all the necessary mediums. And transparency is also key.
If companies adopt an approach similar to the new climate rules proposed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — which may soon require companies to disclose information about their impact on climate change — I believe they will be rewarded by consumers, who expect brands to take a stand.
For example, disclosure from other types of brands might detail what was allocated to women’s leagues versus men’s leagues, what athletes were paid and information about whether men and women were compensated equally for their services. An even deeper dive could reveal how those investments elevated Black women; Black, Brown, Asian or Indigenous creatives; athletes with disabilities; non-binary or trans athletes; or other historically underrepresented groups.
In an industry that celebrates and thrives on competition, companies that take the initiative right now to lead — taking actions like conducting internal audits, articulating a clear vision for the progress they want to make, sharing success stories and being transparent about their commitment — will reap the benefits of being the first out of the gate.
By the time the world first learned about what happened to Brittney, a wave of shock had already hit the tightly knit women’s basketball community. As it rippled out through media into living rooms, Zoom meetings, business dinners and bars across the country that had, until then, not often contained conversations about women in sports, interest in Brittney Griner and the WNBA spiked.
As we, Brittney’s family and friends, strive to compartmentalize our anguish over the unknowns, working while also holding our breath for her safe return, what better way to make her proud than to do everything we can to ensure that what’s happening to her now will never happen again?
We owe it to Brittney to ensure this history does not repeat, so that no other player, family or community will have to experience this again.
BG, I’m still with you. We all are. And we can’t wait to show you all the change you’re inspiring.
On Dec. 8, 2022, Brittney Griner was released from Russian authorities and sent back home to the United States. This is part of the statement from Colas that day:
“It’s through hardship that character is revealed, and over the last nine months, we have seen the best of so many. At the top of that list are BG and President Biden. Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and grit; and President Biden made us a promise, and then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home.
We are forever grateful for his follow-through on that commitment.
In return, our commitment to President Biden and to the families of Americans who are being held hostage and wrongfully detained – especially Elizabeth and David Whelan, on behalf of their brother Paul Whelan, who remains in Russia and whose continued detention weighs heavily on our hearts – is to continue our work in the movement to bring them home.
Our eyes have been opened through this process to your struggle and as we have always done, BG and our coalition of activist athletes will ensure that silence is no longer an option. Your stories will be told, your loved ones’ names will be known, and you will be reunited, because bringing our people home is a moral issue that matters to this Administration. It should matter to all Americans. As patriots, our obligation is to use all available tools to end the needless suffering of Americans and their families.
WE ARE BG was conceived to celebrate the ways that BG represents all of us, and express why her fight is all of ours. WE ARE BG will endure as a coalition to advocate for Americans who need to be returned home, including: Paul Whelan (Russia), Emad Shargi (Iran), Siamak Namazi (Iran), Morad Tahbaz (Iran), Shahab Dalili (Iran), Luke Denman (Venezuela), Airan Berry (Venezuela), Eyvin Hernandez (Venezuela), Kai Li (China), Majd Kamalmaz (Syria), Jeffery Woodke (Mali) and Paul Rusesabagina (Rwanda).
Thank you again to each of you who signed our petition, wrote, called, prayed, posted, advised and advocated. Your effort mattered and BG will be home to her family for the holidays because of you.”
Colas has spent nearly 20 years representing athletes and is currently Executive Vice President, Talent and The Collective at Wasserman. With a focus on representing cultural conversation leaders, Colas oversees the careers of many elite and outspoken athlete icons and Olympic medalists, including WNBA icons, Sue Bird, Nneka Ogwumike, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and Breanna Stewart, NCAA star Paige Bueckers, Olympic gold medalists, April Ross and Simone Manuel, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Paralympian, Scout Bassett. Recently named to Forbes 40 Under 40 and Ad Weeks 30 Most Powerful Women in Sport for her notable and trendsetting work, Colas is considered to be the sports leading agent and a pioneer in the field of representing women athletes, representing 12 WNBA First Overall Draft picks, five WNBA MVPs, eight of the last 12 Finals MVPs and is the first agent to negotiate maternity protections into a major shoe and apparel deal for women, the first major shoe and apparel deal for an openly gay athlete and the first inclusion rider ever negotiated into an athlete endorsement agreement.
Colas received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Master of Arts in Sociology from Stanford where she was an All-District 8 performer and two-year captain of the women’s volleyball team, which during her tenure, appeared in two National Championship marches, winning an NCAA title in 1997. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Andrew Colas and sons, Drew and Remi. Her grandparents George and Lily Kagawa were residents of Lodi, California, before they were sent and imprisoned in Rohwer War Relocation concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.