Brittney Griner’s Detention Shines Harsh Light on Russia – and the U.S.

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On February 17, 2022, Russian authorities arrested Brittney Griner, one of the most dominant centers in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), in an airport near Moscow on charges of drug possession. The Russian Federal Customs Service said it had found vape cartridges containing cannabis in her luggage.

Almost two months later, on Friday, May 6, Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, faced off against the Las Vegas Aces as the WNBA season started without her. She was still held against her will by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government.

The New York Times reported that the crime Griner is accused of, “large-scale transportation of drugs,” holds a possible sentence of 10 years in jail. The Russian state-owned news agency TASS has reported that Russia planned to detain her at least through May 19

Because Griner’s arrest and detention came just as Russia was moving toward its brutal invasion of Ukraine, news about her quickly stopped capturing many headlines. As of early March, all other WNBA players in Russia and Ukraine had left those countries.

Meanwhile, there were initially whispers that Griner’s family was quietly attempting to secure her release, amid requests to fans to refrain from anything too loud or too public that could endanger those efforts.

Fan support, slow-moving U.S. assistance

By mid-March, some 60,000 fans had signed a petition demanding that the U.S. government handle Griner’s situation with the same attention, care, and promptness that could be expected if the detainee were a famous white male athlete. In the eyes of many scholars and fans, Griner is certainly “the Tom Brady” of her sport.

On March 24, a representative from the American embassy in Moscow finally met with Griner. The follow-up report from the State Department said she was in “good condition” and that officials would continue to monitor the situation to verify whether she is being treated fairly. Her Russian attorneys also saw her on several occasions during the first months of her detention. Reports at the time additionally said that, should the Russians not have completed their investigation of Griner’s case by the May 19 hearing, her detention could be extended. 

On May 3, the WNBA announced that it intends to place Griner’s initials and her jersey number court-side at all its games. In addition, the league has assured the Phoenix Mercury of the assistance it needs to hire a replacement while Griner continues to earn her regular salary. She has, according to a March 5 WNBA statement, the league’s “full support.”

Also in early May, the United States State Department finally upgraded its official classification of Griner’s case to “wrongfully detained,” a good signal that the government is prepared to increase pressure on Russia for her release. Her agent has asked the State Department to “do whatever is necessary” to get her out.

The international circuit pays

The uninitiated might ask, “What was she even doing in Russia?”

Since 2015, Griner has played during the American off-season with the UMMC Ekaterinburg. Her skills have helped the team earn four EuroLeague Women championships, as well as three Russian titles. 

This answer tell us a lot about longstanding inequities in the current system of American women’s sports. Moreover, Black women consistently remain near the bottom of pay hierarchies. That’s what drives so many to Russia to supplement the income they’re not earning at home.

Numerous WNBA players, including some of the league’s biggest names, have often played in foreign countries, thanks to the fact that international leagues often provide larger paychecks than the WNBA’s. WNBA stars can easily earn more than $1 million a season on the international circuit, about four to six times what they earn in the United States.

An additional problem now is that the WNBA is making changes to its collective bargaining agreements and now directs players to make their (lower-paying) WNBA contracts a priority. 

Putting a lens on race, gender, and sexual orientation

At age 31, Griner is among the leading lights of the WNBA. She is a seven-time All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

But would Tom Brady, or any white male American athlete with Griner’s skills and dedication to her sport, have met the same fate as she did? It’s a serious question, and more than a few journalists and activists are asking it. For plenty of Black Americans, as well as women and members of the LGBTQ community, the answer is “no.”

Writing in The Grio on March 8, journalist Ernest Owens certainly thought not. Owens wrote that Griner’s identity as a Black, queer, female athlete had everything to do with Russia’s detention of her. The country has a long and well-documented history of state-encouraged hostility to each of those groups. For example, under Putin’s orders, Russian officials have arrested and jailed LGBTQ individuals as part of an ongoing culture war against them. 

It’s also worth pointing out that the charges against Griner could have been manufactured as a means of making an example of her. It’s hard to believe that a major American sports figure who has been playing professionally in Russia in the off-season for several years now wouldn’t know of the country’s harsh drug laws.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has told the press that she believes Russian officials may have singled Griner out as a target. Other knowledgeable Americans, including former Pentagon official and Russia expert Evelyn Farkas, have speculated that Russia may want to use Griner as leverage against Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

Now that the State Department has issued a statement explicitly questioning the legality of Griner’s detention, it has assigned a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to the multi-agency team overseeing her case. This should mean that our government will become more hands-on in negotiating for her freedom.  A lot of us just want to know: what took them so long?

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