Glimpses of Brittney Griner show a complicated path to release
By Kurt Streeter
One hundred forty-one days.
That is how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That is how long she has been stuck in the middle of a high-stakes staredown between the United States and Russia at exactly the wrong time, as President Vladimir Putin of Russia continues his horrendous invasion of Ukraine and echoes the return of the Cold War.
One hundred forty-one days. That is how long Griner has been in limbo.
What terrible uncertainty and fear she must feel, facing a decade in a Russian prison if she is convicted. Griner captured that emotion in her recent letter to President Joe Biden. “I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote. “Please don’t forget about me.”
The seven-time All-Star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty last Thursday, admitting wrongdoing. In so many words, Griner and her lawyer said her troubles began with a mistake: She was readying quickly for her flight to Russia in February and inadvertently packed the smoking cartridges with the small amounts of hashish oil — less than a single gram, according to prosecutors. She said she had no intention of breaking Russian law.
Experts say a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system entirely stacked against defendants. Griner may have chosen not to fight a battle she could not win, helping speed her case to a conclusion.
We don’t know right now. The Mercury center’s teammates, supporters and wife, Cherelle Griner, have not been able to speak with her directly. With the war in Ukraine, all we in America have seen or heard from Brittney Griner has been from appearances at a Moscow-area courtroom that she has attended in handcuffs.
Uncertainty and complication hover over this awful affair. Russian media outlets have claimed that talks of a possible prisoner exchange are already underway, though U.S. officials have not confirmed. One floated swap would include Russian national Viktor Bout, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2012 on a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. During his sentencing, prosecutors called Bout “among the world’s most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers.” He is known as the Merchant of Death.
That lopsided prospective deal shows the difficulty of negotiating Griner’s release. Would it be a balanced exchange to swap a basketball star who carried hashish oil into Russia for a man found guilty of participating in an international plot against Americans?
Paul Whelan, another American being held in Russia, has served two years of a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he has denied. Is it fair to push for Griner’s release before Whelan’s? Should the United States negotiate for him to be included in a deal, even if doing so delays both their releases?
Complicating matters further are issues of race, gender and sexuality.
Griner is tattooed, dreadlocked, Black and 3 inches shy of 7 feet tall. She does not conform to broadly accepted gender stereotypes. She is married to a woman and is an outspoken LGBTQ activist. Putin has a well-documented disdain for LGBTQ people, which only heightens her supporters’ fears for her well-being.
Her appearance, sexuality and outspokenness mean that the contempt for Griner is just as thick in some quarters of the United States. That makes it fair to wonder if the outrage from American citizens would be louder and more pervasive if Griner were a male star athlete who fit neatly into a traditionally accepted role.
“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” said Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach with the Mercury. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person.”
Nygaard may be right. Male athletes are the beneficiaries of a sports ecosystem in which their leagues garner more TV time, their endorsements generate more money, and their accomplishments are more loudly lauded. If this were James in custody — or Stephen Curry or Tom Brady — it stands to reason that their fame would push a more fervent mainstream call for release than has been the case for Griner.
On the other hand, imagine what Russia would be asking in return for LeBron James: The ransom would probably far exceed a single arms dealer languishing in a U.S. prison, especially given the tension between Biden and Putin.
If this were James in custody, well, a whole lot more than a few hundred people would have shown up to rally for his release. Last Wednesday, an estimated 300 people gathered at the Mercury’s arena, Phoenix’s Footprint Center, to show their support for Griner. The building seats 17,000.
I visited the arena in April for a Mercury preseason game and was surprised by the muted acknowledgment of Griner in a city where she has given so much. Known as B.G., she helped lead the Mercury to a WNBA title in 2014 but is as admired there for helping the homeless and championing LGBTQ rights. Local sports radio announcers hardly mentioned her, instead going on and on about the Phoenix Suns competing in the NBA playoffs.
At the time, Griner’s Mercury teammates were following the lead of her advisers, who had decided to stay low-key and not raise a ruckus that might draw Putin’s ire. It was clear the players wanted to be more forthright. As they spoke of how much they loved their teammate and followed the advised path, the fierceness and pain in their eyes showed me that they wanted to say more.
The approach flipped a few weeks later when the U.S. State Department declared that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” The league and its players began to roar — the same as they often do on pressing social issues. Teams paid tribute to Griner by pasting her initials on home courts leaguewide. Over social media, in news conferences and interviews, players demanded that Biden and the White House do whatever was needed to bring her home.
“Free B.G.,” said DeWanna Bonner of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, speaking to the press. “We are B.G. We love B.G. Free her.”
The NBA joined the chorus. Players wore “We are B.G.” T-shirts to practices held during the NBA finals. James, Curry and many other stars spoke out, demanding her release. Athletes from other sports joined in. After Griner’s guilty plea Thursday, Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, wore a white jacket with Griner’s initials stitched into her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What a roller coaster of strategy and emotion. Thursday’s hearing brought another searing twist, seeing Griner there in court, begging for mercy.
One hundred forty-one days, and counting.
Brittney Griner is far from home, and we do not know when she will be set free.