Melba Pearson, Esq.
WNBA Phoenix Mercury superstar Brittney Griner is rotting in a Russian jail. The U.S. Consulate finally got access to her after a month of repeated attempts to make sure she is safe and not being mistreated. Griner played basketball for Russia in the offseason and was detained in February for allegedly trying to smuggle hashish oil (via a vape cartridge) in her luggage. Due to Russia’s harsh drug laws, she could face 10 years in prison.
Part of the problem starts at home in the U.S., where WNBA players are so underpaid that they play in Russia and Eastern Europe during the offseason for much more pay. Their male counterparts in the NBA make seven times more for playing the same exact sport. Women do not get the same endorsements or opportunities stateside to earn more. This speaks to the ongoing battle of pay disparity. Recently, female soccer players received a $24 million dollar settlement regarding the pay disparity between them and their male counterparts.
There may be those who say, “Griner shouldn’t have smuggled drugs, so she’s getting what she deserves.” That assumes the allegations against her are true.
Russian President Vladmir Putin is a former KGB agent who has spent his entire life assessing and preying on weaknesses. It is possible he, for a little extra insurance, arranged for Griner to be detained. She was their entertainment, until she became useful in a different way. If we’ve seen unscrupulous action by police departments in our U.S. democracy – from the Miami River cops robbing drug dealers to mass exonerations driven by the actions of corrupt narcotics detectives in New York – it can easily happen in an authoritarian country.
After months of silence, the State Department finally said publicly that Griner is being “wrongfully detained.” This means it will no longer wait for the case to move through the Russian legal system and will instead launch diplomatic efforts to obtain her release. It also points to a belief that Griner is innocent of the charges against her.
What is sad is that she is being used – used stateside to entertain us while being underpaid, used by the Russians for their own entertainment and possibly as leverage to reduce (or end) the Biden administration’s aid to Ukraine.
Griner has become a political pawn. WNBA players and others were encouraged by U.S. officials to stay silent and not advocate for her release, which is highly disturbing. Politicians at home are more interested in yelling about Lia Thomas and whether she should be allowed to compete as a transgender athlete in women’s sports; the hypocrisy of claiming to care about women but refusing to speak out about Griner’s case is on full display.
What truly brings this disparity home is a recent prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia; former Marine Trevor Reed was released last month and is now back home. Meanwhile, Griner continues to languish in a Russian jail.
The question remains what role race and gender played in the decision not to fight earlier for her release. As one writer put it, “What if Tom Brady were being held by Russian officials right now?” Based on Griner’s level of fame and accomplishments in basketball, it’s a fair comparison.
There are actions we can take. Call your congressperson, U.S. senators and the White House to pressure for Griner’s release. Sign the Change.org petition. Putin may be betting that we don’t value Black lives. Let’s prove him very wrong.