July 13, 2024

FREE BRITTNEY: WNBA hoops star remains in Russian custody awaiting trial

4 min read


Brittney Griner is the personification of the year 2022. Her arrest and current time serving in Russia for a marijuana-related offense is a Venn diagram with international conflict, sports, gender, and race. It’s a gumbo of headaches all around.

In mid-February, WNBA/Phoenix Mercury player Brittney Griner was detained by Russian authorities after allegedly trying to pass vape cartridges containing hashish oil through airport security. For her crime, she could possibly face a decade in jail in Russia. She’s being investigated for a so-called “large scale transportation of drugs.”

Russian courts extended her arrest to May 19.

In the middle of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and America’s reluctance to send troops over on Ukraine’s behalf in fear of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House is stuck between calling for a return of a statesperson over a minor crime (by American standards) while watching Russia bomb Ukrainians with bomb after bomb. However, they’ve demanded that U.S. officials see Griner personally.

Griner has been under Russia’s thumb since Feb. 17. 

In a statement provided to the AmNews, the WNBA said, “In close collaboration with U.S. government agencies, elected officials, individuals, and organizations with expertise in these matters, and Brittney Griner’s representatives and family, we continue to work diligently to get her safely home to the United States. This continues to be a complex situation that is extremely difficult for Brittney, her family, and all who are hoping for a swift resolution. Our number one priority remains her safe return.”

Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and that franchise is in the middle of its own controversy. Franchise owner Robert Sarver is embroiled in a scandal for alleged racist, misogynistic, and abusive behavior. The American Sports Accountability Project (ASAP) and other social justice organizations have called on the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s board of governors to remove Sarver.

“While we join others in wishing for Ms. Griner’s safe return, our mission at ASAP is to demand accountability for abusive behavior within the leadership of American sports leagues,” read an emailed statement from ASAP.

Many professional women’s basketball players use their bodies all year. Once they’re done with the WNBA season, many tend to head overseas to play for teams that pay more money, significant money, for them to continue balling.

So, do people overlook that WNBA players must play overseas to make more money?

According to Dave Zirin, a writer with a reputation for connecting sports to politics, “Yes.”

“I think people have no idea that 50% of players go overseas during the offseason,” Zirin said. “They have no idea that the WNBA treats them like part-time athletes, which compels them to have a year-round schedule. They have no idea of the toll that takes on an individual or a family.”

This isn’t a brand-new concept. In a 2015 piece for ESPN, Diana Taurasi left the Mercury and the WNBA completely to play basketball full-time for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia due to its financial upgrade from the American league.

“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade,” Taurasi told ESPNW reporter Josh Weinfuss. “And even then, even within our pay scale, it doesn’t make sense. On a team, you could have seven players making the same amount of money. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

In 2014, Taurasi made just under the WNBA league maximum of $104,000. UMMC paid her nearly $1.5 million in 2015. 

Elected officials and civil rights activists have already cried foul on social media due to Griner’s hue being darker than blue.

“We cannot ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner wasn’t a Black woman, it would be plastered across the news she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia,” said U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush on Twitter.

New York Public Advocate and gubernatorial candidate Jumaane Williams took to Twitter as well and referred to Griner as a “political prisoner” and hopped on the bandwagon stating, “You may not know & it’s not headline news because…There’s a BLACK WOMAN happens to actually be a @WNBA star being held as a political prisoner.”

Griner is also a Black, queer woman. Russia has come under fire for its anti-LGBTQ policies and its attacks of members.  That, combined with the type of disinformation that swayed the 2016 U.S. Presidential election to Donald Trump, throws another wrench into the problem.

But with all attempts to make noise surrounding the detaining of Griner, according to some sportswriters/commentators, it may be a good thing that it isn’t a bigger story. 

On a recent “ESPN Daily” podcast, long-time ESPN investigative reporter and former New York Daily News writer T.J. Quinn said that Putin would notice and metaphorically dangle Griner, which put Americans in a tough position.

“If it becomes political, then her life is in the hands of no man…,” said Quinn. “If he decided, ‘I want to make an example of her because she’s a powerful cultural symbol…she’s a 6’9”, Black, gay American woman.”

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