Her face partly obscured by white metal bars, US basketball player Brittney Griner appeared exhausted and deflated as she was sentenced on 4 August to nine years in a Russian prison.
In February, the two-time Olympic gold medallist and seven-time Women’s National Basketball Association All-Star (WNBA) was arrested for cannabis possession at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, after police allegedly found two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage. Since then, she’s been shut off from the outside world, seen only when being escorted in handcuffs to and from her cell and communicating with her family solely through letters. While official statements from the US government have been released, with promises of working towards Griner’s release, not much real action has taken place. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, told CNN in July: “This is not a situation where the rhetoric is matching the action.”
Griner, 31, is a prominent star in her field yet her arrest and detention have not raised anywhere near the international response it should have. Bureaucratic relations have forced an eerie silence around Griner’s detention and in doing so exposed the inequalities Griner faces as a queer Black woman. Only after outrage from the public and her teammates after months of inaction from officials, in May President Joe Biden responded that she had been “wrongfully detained”, implying the US would be more aggressive in securing her release.
With little coverage, it was left to her family and friends to draw attention to her detention. On the eve of Griner’s trial, Cherelle called for more action: “I do have to unfortunately push people to make sure that the things they’re telling me are also matching their actions. It’s over 130 days and BG’s still not back.” It has now been 200 days since she was first arrested.
Griner should be celebrated as a trailblazer not only in her sport, but also in her activism. While at Baylor University in Texas, Griner was advised by her coach to keep her sexuality a secret. Her university, which was Christian, had a policy against homosexuality. Despite this, she came out as gay shortly before leaving college at the age of 22, and later became the first openly gay athlete to be sponsored by Nike. She paved the way for young queer women to be open about who they are regardless of institutional powers.
She also used her platform to speak up against racial and social injustice. During the 2020 WNBA season, Griner’s jersey included Breonna Taylor’s name, a 26-year-old woman who was fatally shot in her home by police officers. Back in 2017, Griner spoke out about the controversial bill in Texas that would require transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with the gender assigned on their birth certificates.
“We cannot ignore glaring parallels here; would this have happened if it was a male NBA player? If the WNBA players had been earning enough money in the first place, would Griner be in this situation?”
Griner currently plays for Phoenix Mercury, but it was her second job that took her to Russia, as she would travel to play for the EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg where players received much higher salaries than in professional women’s basketball in the US. The pay discrepancy between WNBA players and their male counterparts is alarming; the average NBA base salary is about $50 million per year (around £41 million) while WNBA players make $120,600 (£99,722).
These figures represent a much larger societal disparity about the value placed on men and women, and particularly in this case, a Black queer woman. We cannot ignore glaring parallels here; would this have happened if it was a male NBA player? If the WNBA players had been earning enough money in the first place, would Griner have been in this situation?
A political pawn
Griner had said she enjoyed her time in Russia, and her teammates and coach testified at her trial. But she is now forcibly detained in a country where LGBTQIA+ activists are frequently arrested, attacked and killed. This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s first legislative attack on people based on their sexual orientation, prohibiting “propaganda of homosexuality among minors”. A 2019 report by the Russian LGBT network revealed that 12% of LGBT people surveyed reported being subject to physical attacks and 56% to psychological abuse.
The precarity of Griner’s status is worsened by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Negotiations between Russia and the US have come at a political price; Russian officials are seeking the release of Russian national Viktor Bout, also nicknamed the ‘merchant of death’, in exchange for Brittney Griner. He is an infamous arms dealer and was found guilty of conspiring to kill Americans, US officials and aiding terrorist organisations.
Their situations are not comparable. Given the war in Ukraine, any potential prisoner exchange could have much more damning effects. It’s likely to set a precedent for diplomatic relations, potentially resulting in future unlawful imprisonment of people to be used as hostages. As Griner’s case shows, she’s been forced to bear the worst of this situation, exemplifying how little importance is placed on human lives amid diplomatic relations. The inequalities in Griner’s case are therefore acute. It took months for Biden to declare unlawful detention. Beyond words of sympathy and a potential political exchange, there hasn’t been any tangible result. What’s more, Griner’s lawyers commented that her sentencing was extremely harsh, especially compared with Russians who have been arrested for similar cases.
“I hope in your ruling it does not end my life,” Griner said during the closing arguments in court. “I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
Griner’s supporters are now boosting public pressure through social media. The hashtag #WeAreBG is on fellow WNBA players’ warm up shirts and social media accounts. Her initials are also being displayed on WNBA courts as fans hold up signs urging for her return.
Back in 2020, Griner spoke of her activism against racial injustice, saying, “I just want to challenge everybody to do more. Write the story that might be tough. Take a chance. Ask a question that’s tough. Don’t let it be silent.”
As an audience to her unlawful detention, we too should take on Griner’s own advice.
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