Where is the outcry for Brittney Griner’s freedom? Last month, it seemed like the basketball star convicted to nine years in a Russian prison for the crime of allegedly having a vape cartridge in a carry-on bag at the airport might find her way back to the United States. Players were speaking out, and the State Department was insisting that getting Brittney home was, finally, at the top of its to-do list.
Yet since then we have heard little. We just passed the 200-day mark since Griner’s imprisonment. Unless a swap happens soon, Griner is set to live in a brutal penal colony likened to a “concentration camp.” This Russian penal colony involves living in barracks and doing hard labor. Human rights groups have reported overcrowding, malnourishment, poor waste disposal, and freezing temperatures in this particular camp. They have also attempted to shine a light on sexual violence and abuse in these camps, particularly against queer prisoners.
In light of the circumstances she is about to face, we should be stepping up our efforts to free Griner. It was even reported that as many 30 American players will be going to Russia to play during the WNBA off-season. This is largely due to the weak salary structure of the WNBA, but these players will be making themselves hostage targets in a much different Russia than they were familiar with a year ago. Here’s praying they make it through, especially given the restrictions on speech and the possibility of imprisonment. Also, while it’s understandable that the players have to earn and support their families, a players’ boycott of Russia seems more than appropriate. The women’s leagues in Russia are popular precisely because of US talent. Ruining a basketball season would send a message to Moscow, where recent articles have highlighted the city’s isolation from the reality of the Ukraine invasion. (Perhaps the NBA should subsidize players to not go to Russia.)
In the United States, we are seeing less attention as her plight, not to mention the Ukraine war, fades into the background of the growing din surrounding the 2022 midterm elections. The paucity of protest was really put in sharp relief for me on Labor Day when the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, the union for WNBA players, issued a plea on social media for all US union members to sign a Change.org petition in support of Griner. That’s welcome, but we’ve already done online petitions. What I’d love to see would be the WNBPA issue an open call on social media for the other sports unions—the NBPA, the NFLPA, the MLBPA, the NHLPA, the USWNTPA—to do a joint press conference calling for Griner’s release. They could also call on the AFL-CIO to play a far more active role in pressuring the Biden administration and demanding that Putin free Griner from the Kafka-esque hell in which she finds herself.
There are other parts of our culture working against Griner. The NFL season starts this week, and that means a hegemonic cultural power to wipe away coverage of anything else from the sports world. Media attention on Griner’s imprisonment from the sports world has already been in short supply. But it will feel like football will have round-the-clock coverage once the NFL kicks off.
The other aspect is that the right wing of both the sports world and US society—including their leader, the “semi-fascist” Donald Trump—has decided that an American facing nine years in a penal colony just isn’t that big a deal; that Griner is somehow “spoiled” and deserving of her fate. This is shocking, and if Tom Brady were arrested under the same circumstances, these same people would be calling for the Navy Seals to secure his release. To the great credit of the WNBA family, they have not been calling for an expanded war in Griner’s name but instead are pressuring Biden to exchange however many prisoners are necessary to secure her freedom. Yet, in the broader culture, we are normalizing Griner’s hell. This is not only disastrous for Griner, her wife Cherelle, and all who support her. It dehumanizes all of us. The guiding phrase should be “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Instead, we get, “Out of sight, out of mind”—and it’s a disgrace.