Brittney Griner, one of the most recognizable basketball players on earth, is in a Russian prison on marijuana possession charges. But anyone who thinks she is there solely because of the racist war on drugs is living in a fantasy land.
Already, Russia has said that it will take “months” before Griner sees a judge. Already, it has made it clear that being caught with hashish oil should be punished with 20 years behind bars. Already, her mug shot has been paraded on Russian state TV—as if she were the prize catch of an overzealous hunter. Given Russia’s war on Ukraine and the world’s economic war on Russia, to not see Brittney Griner as a political prisoner is frankly not to see her at all. That’s why we hear no updates about her from Russian officials. They are dangling her like some kind of bargaining chip, while largely maintaining a disturbing silence.
We do not know the conditions in which Griner is being held. We do not know how she is being treated. We do not know if she has been able to contact her loved ones. We are also hearing silence from the sports world. Imagine if Kevin Durant were being held in a Russian prison, waiting months for a trial, in the middle of a war. Every day we would have an update, even if it were just to say his name and ensure that he was still in people’s minds. Every day the NBA and the WNBA, with their global reach and political power, would be pressed to ask what they are doing to secure Durant’s freedom. Yet sports radio, the leagues, and Griner’s teammates have remained quiet. The primary reason for this, as I have been told repeatedly off the record in writing this article, is that the State Department is attempting to secure her release, and any effort to raise the profile of her plight could backfire. Choosing silence must be incredibly painful for Griner’s family, friends, and community in the WNBA. It also is a strategy they should consider abandoning.
Right now, there are only bad choices. But the starting point has to be the recognition that this is no longer about marijuana possession, if it ever was. There needs to be a recognition that Griner is in fact a political prisoner. This raises the question: How could negotiations with the United States possibly work given the geopolitical climate? It also necessitates asking a more urgent question: How do you free a political prisoner? Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant who has worked on securing the release of prisoners in other countries, said to CNN, “There’s a difficult choice to make about whether to speak or not to but shine a light. If it were my loved one, my answer would be shine a light. Every time.” Griner has been jailed for over a month in figurative and perhaps literal darkness. If the State Department could not get her out when the situation with Russia and Ukraine was still fluid and still building toward war, what could possibly make them think that quiet diplomacy would work now? The only option available is to turn Griner’s case into the kind of public spectacle that harms Putin’s efforts to create a domestic narrative that he’s somehow the “good guy” who wants to “denazify” Ukraine.
The ability to raise Griner’s name further puts Putin on the defensive, but not him alone. Griner is a Black, queer, athletic superstar, and that is partly why she is being disregarded by so much of the US sports media. They don’t have a language for her, so they say nothing at all. She is also a remarkably strong person who has endured a great deal in life and has not chosen silence. We should take inspiration from that choice. As Franks said, “People that do wrongful detention are oddly sensitive to bad headlines.” The NBA, the WNBA, and everyone who has love in their hearts for Griner but has declined to speak out should start making different choices. The silence that the US government is demanding from people does not help Griner. It only assists Putin’s government and whatever strategy it might be pursuing. It is in Griner’s best interest to have people saying her name and pulling her predicament into the light for everyone to see. Free Brittney Griner. Say her name, because her freedom may depend upon it.