The problem is not just what happened to Brittney Griner. The problem is that we don’t know what is happening to Brittney Griner now. The WNBA superstar was allegedly caught with hashish oil in her luggage at a Russian airport and has been in custody for several weeks. For those first couple of weeks, it was as if no one noticed she was missing, no small feat for an athlete who is six foot nine and one of the most recognizable players in the history of the game. She also is also well-known in Russia, where she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA off season. In 2021 she helped the Russian team win its fifth EuroLeague Women’s championship. (Many WNBA players hoop in Russia during the off-season, as they need to supplement their income, an injustice in and of itself.)
Almost certainly, instead of creating an immediate public outcry following her arrest, there were efforts behind the scenes to get her out of Russia, which, we know now, was preparing to invade Ukraine. The goal would have been to make this go away without provoking an international incident. Well, it’s too late for that now. There are online petitions and a predictable uproar given the anti-Putin sentiment in the States. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, posted a picture of them together on Instagram as the news spread over the weekend. She thanked their fans and then wrote, “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.”
In other words, delicate negotiations to get Griner home are almost certainly ongoing in a situation that is spiraling. Griner is detained in Russia at a moment when US-Russian relations are at their worst since Ronald Reagan joked, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” When and how she gets home and how she is being treated right now are anyone’s guess. As basketball writer Tom Ziller put it, “We don’t have an idea as the public WNBA fandom where Griner is, or how she is doing, or how long she has been detained, or the circumstances of her custody, or what she knows about a timeline for being released, or what she’s being told. We don’t really know anything, and we don’t know whether she or those close to her know anything.”
Whether it started this way or not, we need to understand Griner as a political prisoner. It may have started with airport racial profiling and the idiotic war on cannabis. But now, by the nature of this perilous moment, she has become a chit, a leverage point, in a larger political war.
The WNBA and Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, are being tight-lipped about the situation—as is the US State Department. But I did reach the coauthor of Griner’s 2014 memoir In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, Sue Hovey. The former ESPN The Magazine executive editor told me: “Brittney Griner is one of the most resilient, mentally tough athletes I’ve ever met. When she led Baylor to a perfect season and the national championship in 2012, she did so while having to endure a torrent of vicious verbal attacks from opposing fans and online trolls. People forget that when she graduated from Baylor in 2013 and publicly came out as gay upon entering the WNBA, that was still a big deal at the time; it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today for athletes to reveal their authentic selves. Brittney was, and continues to be, a trailblazer in eschewing gender norms. Even eight years after her memoir was published, I still get the occasional Twitter message from a college student who read her book in a gender studies class, or just a fan expressing gratitude for Brittney sharing her story. Like many athletes, she has had some stumbles and controversy along the way, but she always takes accountability and shows a willingness to learn and grow. And in an age of curated social media content, there’s something refreshing about a high-profile athlete who gives us that three-dimensional view. She’s relatable and human, and that resonates with people.”
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It is absolutely true that Griner resonates with people, and now many of her fans are up in arms. If the goal was to quietly negotiate Griner’s return, those days are done. At this point, there is really no choice but to shine the brightest possible light on this political injustice and demand that she be sent home. Political prisoners are rarely freed easily. It requires—and demands—an international response. Brittney Griner is a basketball titan who deserves more than to be treated like a pawn.