Brittney Griner flexes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics women's basketball. USA was the quarterfinals against Australia at Saitama Super Arena, Saitama, on August 4, 2021. Photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Jailed WNBA athlete-activist Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years. Gets caught in the crosshairs of U.S.-Russia geopolitics

11 mins read

The sentence in the Brittney Griner case is grim. The Biden Administration finally offers a prisoner swap to Russia, but there is uncertainty around releasing the politically outspoken pro-basketball star.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in Russian courts. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” wrote President Joe Biden in a White House release. The statement also said that the Administration “will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to get Griner and another prisoner, Paul Whelan, released. After almost six months of months of mounting pressure from the public, the Biden Administration is showing a more active role in negotiating a prisoner trade swap.

Last month, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Cherelle Griner, wife of the two-time Olympic gold medalist. A meeting that many, including Cherelle, thought should have happened months ago, the talk centered the political chess game between the U.S. and Russia regarding Brittney’s recent detainment.

Footage from Russia state media showed a handcuffed Brittney Griner walking into court wearing a hooded sweatshirt decorated with the bold statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Standing at “6-foot-9-inches,” the seven-time WNBA All-Star for the Phoenix Mercury, quietly, yet with much prominence, displayed a political gesture that has taken on new meaning during her detention. 

Since February 17, Brittney has been in custody due to allegations that customs officers at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. During trial, her legal representation provided evidence of a medical marijuana prescription from her personal physician. Cannabis was recommended to assist Griner in treating the physical pain from the wear-and-tear on her body after years of playing basketball. Yet and still, both medicinal and recreational marijuana drug use is illegal in Russia under Article 228.

For the last 10 years, Griner divides her time in a rigorous schedule by playing as a top performer in two professional leagues—the U.S. and Europe. Like a considerable number of women on the WNBA roster, they participate in Europe’s sports industry during their off-season. At the time of her arrest, Griner was entering into Moscow again to take the helm as a star player for Russia’s UMMC Yekaterinburg team.

On July 7, Griner pleaded guilty. In her testimony, she reported that she was denied access to an interpreter when initially arrested and was coerced to sign legal documents she could not read. Eventually, a translator was offered, who insisted Griner sign, but did not fully explain the materials. Included in Griner’s account, she was unaware of where the vape cartridges came from, plus she lacked legal representation for most of her detention. On top of that, she claims her arrest was mishandled.

In a letter, Griner appealed to President Biden to not “forget about me and the other American detainees.” Insisting that he “do all [that he] can to bring [them] home.” She is now awaiting her conviction, in hopes that President Biden intervenes.

“The United States has shown a long history of negotiating with its enemies to release soldiers … journalists, to release other prominent citizens in the past,” senior political advisor at Florida Rising, Dwight Bullard, told Ark Republic. However, the 165-plus days to get Griner released presents a troublesome narrative.

Griner’s arrest occurred 11 days before Russia launched an aggressive military operation against Ukraine. The invasion occurred months after Russia-Ukraine talks to deal with long standing issues, quickly disintegrated.

| Read: Kenya feels the heat from the Russia-Ukraine conflict

“She’s detained by the Russian government, right at the same time the Ukrainian issue is bubbling up,” Bullard explained. “So you have Ukraine trying to become a part of NATO, [while] . . . the US being one of the largest countries in NATO positioning itself to defend the Ukraine, at all costs.”

Bullard thinks that Griner’s detention is steeped in a political tete-a-tete that has gone on for generations between the U.S. and Russia. “You have one of the most prominent American athletes caught up in a situation that under normal circumstances would have been relatively easy to deal with,” said Bullard. 

He furthered. “Russia is an oligarchy,” citing the country is ruled by a few who remain wealthy often through corruption. “Someone could’ve said, ‘Hey listen, she’s sorry, she was wrong, here’s $100,000, [now] go on about your business.’”

The 100-plus day lapse between Griner’s arrest and reports that the Biden Administration made an offer to Russian officials, has drawn more criticism. At one point, Cherelle Griner, who just graduated from law school, resorted to detailing the public about the Biden Administration’s silence in regards to her wife. “He has that power. I’m just like, ‘Why are we not using it? Like, urgently, use it.’’ she told ESPN.

Eventually, President Biden contacted Cherelle. On July 6, he reached out “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.” He even wrote to the detained Griner to express his commitment in working on her case. 

According to a State Department official’s talk with CNN, the administration classified the jailed American as “wrongfully detained” since May 3.

Rev. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft (right-foreground) speaks at a vigil for Brittney Griner held outside the Consulate-General of Russia in New York City on June 29, 2022. Photo credit: Alamy/Ben Von Klemperer

Black, gay and proud. Disparities in global negotiations

On July 27, the White House finally released the details of their negotiation. They offered to swap out convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and another political prisoner, Paul Whelan. Amarine with Canadian,  U.S., British, and Irish citizenship, Whelan was arrested in 2018 and convicted in 2020 for spying in Russia. 

Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year sentence for the illegal selling of weapons.

Already, the White House successfully negotiated a prisoner swap with Moscow in April of this year. U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was returned in exchange for a convicted Russian drug dealer. Konstantin Yaroshenko was in US custody since 2010 after his arrest in Liberia by undercover DEA officers. On the other hand, Reed was sentenced to nine years for assaulting Russian police officers after a night of heavy drinking in 2019. He was said to be in Russia visiting a girlfriend who was a lawyer in Moscow at the time.

Initially facing up to ten years for her offense, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in an August 1 press briefing that, “there was a counteroffer that was made [by Russia], which we don’t see it as a serious counteroffer.”

As for Griner’s fate, now tethered to another detainee, it seems grim. For Dr. Sherice Nelson, Griner’s distinctive intersections “having a specific set of racism and sexism” is the reason behind the U.S. having to “package her in a political prisoner deal with Russia.”

Griner’s position is the quintessential example of the concept of intersectionality. A rather fertile study of how Black women are treated differently in a criminal justice system due to the overlapping identities of their race and gender. In the case of Griner, this also includes sexuality.

“One of the elements of political detainees . . . or a prime target for a political prisoner, is something that politically your country is aligned with and the other country is not. In this instance, the United States is all about the LGBTA-plus rights and Russia is pushing against those,” political science professor and international relations analyst Sherice Nelson said to Ark Republic.

Griner is openly gay, and on her second, same-sex marriage. While in detention, she wished her wife goodluck as she prepared to take the bar exam. Many players in the WNBA openly support or are members of the Pride community, which is also a rarity in the patriarchal and heteronormative bones of American sports. 

“I just really believe America still has serious problems as it pertains to sexism and homophobia,” expressed Bullard who said “a gay Black woman” nor the WNBA would command the same level of respect or visibility as an NBA player or professional male athlete in general. “Had this been Tom Brady, or LeBron James, or whomever, baseball, golf . . . I just think the energy would’ve been different had they been a man.”

Athletic, but revolutionary

Griner’s jailing seemingly remained ignored by the Administration, players in the WNBA and the NBA became more collectively vocal. In the beginning, the WNBA instructed players and staff to not publicly talk about the situation for fear that it would give Russia more bargaining power. For Cherelle, silence would cause more detriment. One by one, athletes from different sports, both current and retired, began voicing support in joining the #FREEBG campaign.

“As a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sports community, BG’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the sanctity of all sports and for all Americans traveling internationally,” wrote LeBron James.

If the shoe were on the other foot, or in the other league, records evidence that members of the WNBA have been far more vocal, much more proactive, and pretty much more gangster about their stances than athletes in the NBA. Since Black Lives Matter, WNBA players have taken bold action on and off the court. From being the first to consistently wear t-shirts with political messaging, to taking a knee before games, to using their platforms to express their solidarity with African American efforts, the WNBA shows a more consistent and audacious history intersecting sports with politics.

In 2016, three WNBA teams, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever, wore black pregame tees to show solidarity with the growing protests against racially-motivated killings by police officers across the country. For the Minneapolis Lynx, the message “Change starts with us: Justice and Accountability,” was etched in the front of their tops. Each player was fined $500, while teams were slapped with a $5000 fee.

“We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.

Griner was on the Mercury then. Posting in a series of tweets she said:

Growing up loving two police officers means I know the sacrifices officers and their families make to keep us safe…

And I’ve experienced discrimination and bias because of my race, gender and orientation…

Yet I know we must come together in order to survive. I’m learning. You’re learning. But we all know how to LOVE…

Let love and respect guide our actions as we search for ways to come together!!! #equality #supportheblue #blacklivesmatter

Using her popularity, Griner has consistently been outspoken about a number of social injustices. In 2017, Griner co-wrote an op-ed opposing Texas’s bill SB3, stating it “would make it impossible for cities and school districts to proactively protect LGBTQ people in restrooms, locker rooms and other changing facilities.”

Working as an ally for the trans community, Griner and Layshia Clarendon went on to say:

We have often been subjected to scrutiny and harassment for our gender expression. We play basketball, a sport that encourages women to be strong and competitive and challenges the cultural expectation of what it means to be [a] woman in athletics. Because of our gender expression, we often struggle with navigating public spaces such as restrooms, restaurants and airport security, spaces where we have been called “sir” and “mister.” We empathize but cannot understand fully what it means to walk in the shoes of trans folks. 

When Breonna Taylor was gunned down by Louisville, Kentucky police in a no-knock warrant on March 13, 2020 then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the response from the WNBA intensified. Players were seen in the streets protesting. Washington Mystics Natasha Cloud decided to forego the 2020 season to take an active role in demonstrations. “My goal was to always be a champion on the court for the Mystics, but also to be a champion in the community,” said Cloud.

Over and over, WNBA players employed multiple strategies to ensure their political position was clear. They even protested the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, Kelly Loeffler, who was a Republican Georgia incumbent who voiced opposition against the Black Lives Matter movement. In defiance, players wore tees with the name of her opponent, Raphael Warnock, who eventually won the seat in a pivotal election that made the Senate a Democrat-majority when Joe Biden took office in 2021. Over time, their connection to BLM, which also prioritizes Black LGBTQ, showed an unwavering solidarity, Griner maintained her visibility. As time tells, that would hurt Griner’s current case.

Griner at practice with the Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, March 2019. Photo credit: Creative Commons/УГМК team

A post Black Lives Matter world

Albeit, with progress comes challenges. The BLM protests ratcheted up during the Donald Trump Administration. While the needle moved forward on LGBTQA-plus agendas, a growing rejection of the lifestyle became ever more clear amongst Trump supporters. This opposition included those who said the LGBT community’s calls for action eventually overshadowed and even hijacked Black advocacy. This severe opposition followed a growing anti-Blackness articulating itself in institutions throughout the country. Growing like raging, uncontrollable fungi, anti-Blackness has become synonymous with far right, and right wing voters.

Trump’s public criticisms of notable athletes like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick emboldened racists and Trump sympathizers. Kaepernick knelt during pre-game ceremonies to highlight his disagreement of police-sanctioned murders of Black citizens. Eventually, he was released by the Washington Redskins (now Commanders), and never hired again.

Complicating the political terrain even more, during Trump’s time as POTUS, he openly showed to be a contented bedfellow of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Flipping the economic relationships globally, the Trump-Putin love affair bolstered Russia’s agenda to position itself for regional, if not global dominance.

“Russian philosophy is when they are not at war, they are preparing for war,” explained Dr. Nelson who has been speaking on the Ukraine-Russia conflict for Ark Republic.

During his time in office, Trump put money over national matters. Striking a number of trade-offs with Putin, his lax methods provided fertile soil in creating the Ukraine crisis, expressed Dr. Nelson. During the Trump era, he lifted sanctions against Crimea and Donbass, all the while, cutting Ukraine’s aid when its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky refused to relaunch an investigation on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and his dealings in the Eastern European nation.

Added to the fire, reports from the U.S. Congress showed that Black Lives Matter initiatives and those who voiced a “woke” or pro-Black agenda, were disrupted by a well-drafted misinformation campaign from Russia. The report details that Russian intelligence used social media to manipulate the Black voice, and its political narratives. One of the results was the major loss by Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. While Clinton’s lack of connecting with Black voters was a huge criticism in hindsight, social media’s influence in the political sphere became more apparent.

For the whole time in office, Trump used twitter ferociously until the privately-owned platform clipped his usage during the January 6 coup attempt in 2021. As the forty-fifth POTUS, Trump’s Administration was as controversial, as it was mercurial. Promoting a “blue lives matter” message, it was also intertwined with one that shunned Black political progress.

In turn, he provided a platform for those on the far-right, including white supremacist groups, to reveal their leanings through voting, and in daily life. From white women falsely accusing Black people of assault, to the most extreme⸺the attempted coup on January 6, 2021.

When President Biden took office, thus began again the sparring between old rivals. President Biden, who served as vice-president to Barack Obama, has a history with President Putin. Explicitly expressing disdain for POTUS, so far, President Putin refuses to compromise on his position with Ukraine. At the same time, President Biden’s abhorrence for the Russian head of state is exhibited in what Bullard says is the Administration “beating its chest,” in holding its position in the Ukraine-Russia crisis. As a result, people like Griner get caught in the cross-hairs

Today, Griner sits in a Russian jail, unsure of her future.

This Black August series explores Brittney Griner as a political prisoner.

Updated August 5 at 11:31 pm

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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1 Comment

  1. Such a tough situation. But, maybe Lebron was right in stating that Griner probably doesn’t want to come back to the U.S. After all, she turned her back on the American flag and supports a Marxist organization (BLM). Russia (or China or North Korea…) is a mecca for anti-American, communistic people and one would expect that any radical leftist should be happy to stay in such a place permanently.

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