It sounds absurd: Dennis Rodman has plans to travel to Russia to speak with Vladimir Putin about freeing Brittney Griner from prison. The NBA Hall of Famer, as famous for his flamboyance as for his rebounding, thinks he can succeed where the Antony Blinken State Department has failed and find a way to get WNBA superstar Griner out of a Russian cell. I can’t bring myself to mock Rodman like so many in the sports world seem content to do—and not just because some news outlets have spent more time discussing Rodman’s gambit in one week than they have spent raising the name of Brittney Griner over the last eight months. My reasons for not scoffing come down to two words: “Why not?” The State Department has so far failed to free Griner, and we’ve seen celebrity diplomacy work in the past, albeit with figures more esteemed than Rodman. Even if Rodman lacks the gravitas of a Muhammad Ali, he shares Ali’s currency of fame and that, in dealing with dictators, can be priceless.
In such an environment, why not Rodman? Dictators like Putin are easily flattered by the presence of celebrity. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment and global respect that they otherwise—in winning elections with 148 percent of the vote—would not possess. The examples of this are manifest, with Rodman’s buddy Kim Jung Un just one of many. Donald Trump’s obsession with celebrity, his humiliation at having to consort with Chachi, and his desire to belong in circles that reject him as a greasy, vulgar vole is another personality defect that marks him as an aspirant to tyranny.
When the choice is nothing vs. something, something can look at least like an option worth consideration. There is so much stupid and cruel that engulfs Griner’s plight that it could stand to reason that a solution that seems ostensibly stupid might be the smartest possible play. It is stupid and cruel that Griner is facing nine years in prison for possession of marijuana vaping oil for personal use. It is stupid and cruel that the sports media largely decided that Griner’s agony—what should be the biggest sports story on earth—has been largely ignored. It is stupid and cruel that some people are raising Griner’s name in the United States as if we are so superior, when there are still countless people suffering in US prisons for nonviolent marijuana offenses. It is stupid and cruel that Putin is pretending that his court system, with its 99 percent prosecutorial success rate, is anything but a sham.
As for the US State Department, they have made it clear that they do not want Rodman to go to Russia and try some sort of improv diplomacy. Spokesperson Ned Price said, “He would not be traveling on behalf of the U.S. government…. We believe that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder those release efforts.”
Let’s examine that statement. That Rodman would not be traveling on behalf of the US government might actually be a plus, given this rapidly devolving cold-to-hot war between the USA and the Russian state. Also, “the established channel” has just been bricks from the foul line (something Rodman could relate to). There is a chance that Putin, just to humiliate Biden, Blinken, Price, and the rest, would let Rodman be the hero that brings Brittney home. If that seems absurd to the big brains in the Biden administration, it is no less absurd than this administration’s inability to calm tensions and bring Griner back to her family. This has been a circus from the start, so maybe it will take a clown to bring Brittney home.