It’s been weeks since WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia, allegedly for having vape cartridges that contained hash oil (cannabis oil). But the world only found out recently when Russian media released her alleged mugshot. Brittney, one of the world’s best basketball players who’s been playing for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg team during the WNBA off-season since 2015, faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years, if convicted.
Because WNBA salaries can be as low as $60,000 and max out at $228,000 (as compared to the astronomical millions top NBA players can make), it’s common practice for WNBA players to go abroad in the off-season, where they can make more than $1 million. When Russia invaded Ukraine, WNBA players began evacuating both countries, but Griner was arrested at Moscow’s airport.
So, why is Brittney’s arrest a major concern? With Russia being at war with Ukraine, it’s reasonable to fear people fear that the two-time Olympic medalist’s arrest and imprisonment is a calculated move against the U.S. and a way to use her as a pawn in the war.
Brittney’s high school coach Debbie Jackson doubted the credibility of the charges in an interview with the New York Times: “It’s just hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete that knows the laws of that country and the cultural differences and norms and just the completely different political system, would even think about putting in their carry-on bag something that was a banned substance in that country.”
California U.S. Rep John Garamendi shared that getting Brittney out will be “very difficult.” “Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” he told CNN. ”Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions.” He also mentioned Russia’s strict anti-LGBTQ laws. As a Black American, queer, 6’8, masc presenting woman, Brittney’s safety and treatment in Russian custody are challenged on multiple fronts.
Fortunately, the Biden administration is reportedly working on a way to get Brittney free and home safely. "The best news we got today was that they know about it and that she's on the agenda," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, said after Biden met with the Congressional Black Caucus on Monday. "We know about Brittney Griner, and we know that we have to move on her situation."
Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, shared a post dedicated to the 31-year-old while thanking fans for their support during this unfortunate time. “Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia,” she wrote. “Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”
The Phoenix Mercury star’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas also issued a statement confirming that they are working with the State Department to “get her home,” noting that “her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
There is a petition on Change.org demanding Brittney’s safe return. So far, 50,000 people have signed it at the time of this writing.
Update: August 4, 2022
Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison and fined 1 million rubles (USD $16,600) after pleading guilty to smuggling drugs in the country. However, the WNBA star’s lawyers shared in a statement that they plan to file an appeal calling the sentencing “unreasonable.” Many others have shared a statement about Griner’s sentencing such as President Joe Biden.
"Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney," he said. "It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."
Since Griner’s detainment, President Biden has been working with the Russian government for her release. He reportedly has been negotiating her release along with another American prisoner named Paul Whelan in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
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Featured image by Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Originally published on March 10, 202