The Cheap Seats: Far from Home
After WNBA star Brittney Griner’s guilty plea to drug possession in Russia earlier this year, Lanie Everett ’24 takes us through the ins and outs of the case.
Last Thursday, Brittney Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist, seven-time WNBA All-Star and starting center for the Phoenix Mercury — pleaded guilty in front of a Russian court for possession and transportation of drugs. Russian airport officials detained Griner on Feb. 17 for possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil, and since then she has spent 148 days under Russian surveillance, facing the possibility of never being able to return home.
Although Griner’s guilty plea may seem suspicious to some, the U.S. State Department quickly released a statement upon news of her conviction describing Griner and other American prisoners of Russia as “wrongfully detained”. These words from the State Department not only acknowledge their commitment to bringing Griner home, but also their view that Griner’s conviction is entirely political.
Griner’s impact is felt by all who are advocates of social justice, women in sports and the LGBTQ+ community. Her absence is strongly felt by all who have admired her. But what was Griner doing in Russia in the first place?
To supplement their income, many WNBA stars travel to play on basketball teams abroad in their off-season. Griner has played for a team named UMMC Ekaterinburg for seven years, based in Russia, because she does not have the financial cushion as her NBA All-Star counterparts — an issue that female American athletes are still facing today after 50 years of Title IX.
Tensions between Russia and the United States have been strained since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, and Griner’s detainment gives Russian courts new leverage over the United States. Russia likely plans to keep Griner under their watchful eye as long as possible — unless the U.S. offers a trade in her place, possibly in the form of a Russian imprisoned in the U.S.
One prospect: Viktor Bout — dubbed the “Merchant of Death” — who was sentenced to incarceration in the United States for 25 years for providing weaponry for a terrorist organization. Although Russia has asked for Bout back from the U.S. more than once, it seems like a swap for Griner and American Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage activities, could be the catalyst for Bout’s release back to Russia. The pressure falls on President Joe Biden to make the final call.
On July 4, after not hearing from Griner since her detainment, Biden received a handwritten letter from her.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote. “Please do all you can to bring us [me and the other detainees] home.”
Delivered on a day designated as a celebration of the U.S’s independence and liberty, Griner’s words served as a stark contrast to that freedom. However, it seems likely that Russian officials would have meticulously inspected every word she originally penned and only these few passed their rigorous test. Still, her words call Biden into swift action.
“I would like to again emphasize the commitment of the United States Government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner, ” Biden said as news of Griner’s guilty plea reached the White House.
Another individual who is even more committed to seeing the American athlete’s return is Cherelle Griner, Britney Griner’s wife. Last week, Cherelle Griner hosted a BG Rally at the Phoenix Mercury’s home stadium, where she communicated her frustration and sadness at her wife’s detainment. Among teammates, friends and family, Griner also has the support of the WNBA franchise, who named her an honorary member of the All-Star games last Saturday.
Every day the Russian government holds Griner in her cell, the State Department and White House face questions about her return. For now, there is no end to Griner’s overseas stay until a possible trade occurs; until then, those following her story all wish for her well-being far from home.