Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since February 2022. Her detention was recently extended to May. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
KOBE MOSLEY | SPORTS EDITOR | email@example.com
On February 17, 2022, Brittney Griner tried to enter Russia. While going through luggage checks in the Sheremetyevo International Airport, Griner was stopped by officials and detained for allegedly having possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil.
To understand the impact of what this means for not only Griner but the WNBA, American sports and the United States as a whole — some backstory is necessary.
Griner is one of the greatest female basketball players of our generation. A standout player at Baylor University and considered one of the greatest college players ever, she was drafted with the number one overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA Draft. Since then she has won the WNBA Championship, been selected to six WNBA All-Star teams and won two Defensive Player of the Year awards. These are only just a few of her accolades.
Why was Griner trying to enter Russia?
Like many WNBA stars, the salary these players earn isn’t nearly enough to support the lives of full-time athletes. In order to make more money, players regularly travel overseas to play basketball during the WNBA offseason. Since 2014, Griner has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a women’s basketball team in Russia.
Around the same time that Griner was attempting to enter Russia, the invasion of Ukraine began. In response to Russia’s actions, FIBA Europe’s Euroleague Women suspended UMMC Ekaterinburg from playing in their league. Fellow teammates of Griner and current WNBA players Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Jonquel Jones all left the team and returned to the United States.
What made Griner decide that it was still worth traveling to Russia?
This answer isn’t as cut and dry as the first, and only Griner can give the real answer. However, here are some educated guesses as to how Griner might have been thinking at the time.
TJ Quinn, an investigative journalist for ESPN following the Griner situation, spoke about what Griner may have been thinking on the ESPN Daily podcast with Pablo Torre. According to Quinn, owning a women’s basketball team in Europe has become a symbol of status for Russian oligarchs. The athletes on the team are paid substantially more than their American teams and are treated like superstars. Despite the concern of traveling to Russia during this time, it’s possible that Griner believed she was safe because she had someone in power looking out for her.
Sadly, this was not the case for Griner. She was charged with illegally trying to get narcotics through the border. Due to Russia’s strong anti-drug policies, a potential sentence could be seven to 10 years. However, if it’s determined that she had “a significant amount” — more than 2.5 grams — then Griner could be facing 10 to 20 years.
Why isn’t there constant coverage about this in mainstream media and social media?
The short answer: because it will only hurt Griner’s chances of getting home.
This is where the big problem lies. How do you spread the word without spreading the word? On one hand, there are people who are concerned about Griner and want her to get home, so they want to spread as much awareness as possible. For example, Texas congresspeople Sheila Jackson Lee and Colin Allred have been very vocal about trying to free Griner. Conversely, those close to Griner and the State Department have been nearly radio silent about the matter. When asked about what he is doing to get Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken purposefully did not refer to her by name in his response.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia,” Blinken said. “We’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”
Convincing people to not make this a huge story and trust the institutions that are working to get Griner home is difficult, especially when these systems have not been vetted for helping a gay Black woman like Griner.
So what do we do now?
Probably the hardest thing there is to do: nothing.
We have to put trust in the people closest to Griner and respect the plan that they have decided on with the people who have the power to get her home. Caleb Yonker, a junior sports media major, is concerned about Griner and believes we need to go with this plan of action.
“After thinking about it a little more, I understand the desire to want to go on social media,” Yonker said. “I understand wanting to express a thought or two about how she’s being held hostage and how we need to bring her home and reiterating that sentiment that she is the victim. But I think we do need to stop … it won’t help her case anymore.”
Most recently, Griner’s detention has been extended to May 19 as the investigation continues. While the outlook may not look bright right now, all we can do now is do our part in helping Griner get home safe.