By MARK LORENZANA
Brittney Griner, the superstar center who plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), has now been in Russian custody for more than 100 days. Griner also plays for Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason, and in Feb. 22 of this year was arrested upon her arrival in Moscow after Russian authorities claimed that she had been carrying in her luggage vape cartridges containing hashish oil.
Although detained as early as Feb. 22, it was only after almost two weeks, on March 5, that Griner’s arrest came to light — it was first reported in the New York Times and Russian news agency TASS that she was being held after customs officials allegedly found contraband in her possession at the Sheremetyevo airport.
Adding to the issue of the delayed reports of Griner’s detention was that, initially, U.S. authorities and even representatives of Griner had chosen to be silent about her plight in Russia other than to say that they were working hard to bring her back home.
Back in March 7, Griner’s high school coach, Debbie Jackson, talked to CNN about her former player and the drug charges that she is currently facing — which carries a sentence of 10 years in prison, if Griner is found guilty. “My biggest fear is that this will become, that she will be a political pawn,” Jackson said.
In a BBC report on May 13, U.S. Congressman John Garamendi, a member of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee, seemed to echo Jackson’s sentiment. “We don’t want Ms. Griner to become a pawn in the political battle that’s being waged throughout the world right now,” he said.
Garamendi was alluding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but there is no indication that Griner’s arrest was, in any way, connected to this. In fact, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24, the EuroLeague promptly suspended all Russian basketball teams, and United States and WNBA officials had begun asking players to leave Russia. But it was too late for Griner, who is believed to have entered the country one week earlier, on Feb 17.
That Griner might be used as a political pawn is becoming clearer after a story in TASS, dated May 13, cited an unnamed source who disclosed that talks were underway for a prisoner exchange — Griner for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. “Currently, talks are underway on exchanging Bout for Griner,” the source allegedly told the Russian news agency.
Bout was arrested during a sting operation in Thailand in 2008, which was carried out by U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operatives. He was extradited to the United States and sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization. Bout’s exploits have earned him the moniker “Merchant of Death,” and was the inspiration for the 2005 Nicolas Cage film, “Lord of War.”
Former U.S. intel officer Rebekah Koffler, in an interview with Fox News, believes that a prisoner swap of Bout for Griner is a mistake. “The (Joe) Biden administration’s potential decision to exchange this heinous Russian criminal, who is serving jail time in the United States for being involved in killing Americans, is a huge mistake,” Koffler said. “This move will only encourage the Russian intelligence services to grab Americans on Russian soil, so they can be exchanged for much more valuable assets for (Vladimir) Putin.”
One positive thing going for Griner is that, in a May 3 report by ESPN, the United States has reclassified her as wrongfully detained in Russia. This change in official designation means that the U.S. government will not need to wait for Griner’s case to play out through the Russian legal system and, instead, can seek to actively negotiate for her return. This also means that Griner’s WNBA colleagues and supporters can now bring as much attention to her case as they wish, which has been playing out recently.
On Saturday, June 4, Boston Celtics players, in a practice session in San Francisco, California — a day after defeating the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals — were seen wearing shirts printed with “We Are BG (Brittney Griner).”
“The shirts are super important, not only because they show our support for our sister that’s wrongfully detained over in Russia, Brittney Griner,” Celtics power forward Grant Williams said. “We just wanted to show that togetherness and love that we have throughout, not only in the NBA, but also in the WNBA. She’s been a vital part of the WNBA for years past, college, and in the amount of impact she’s had on young female athletes.”
Former Syracuse basketball star Carmelo Anthony, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, also released a video on Thursday, June 2, through his Twitter account, offering support to Griner and calling for her return to the United States.
“Hi, I’m Carmelo Anthony. I want to take this time to bring up our friend Brittney Griner. One hundred five days. It’s been 105 days since Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia. She is a WNBA player, an Olympian, a teammate, a sister, a daughter and a wife. She is a human, and she needs to come home,” Anthony said.
Anthony and the Boston Celtics are only the latest in a growing list to have added their voice to the clamor to bring home Griner and to publicly show their support. Griner has also recently been able to receive emails from other WNBA players and send out replies in return. It has not been easy, however: The emails are printed out and delivered sporadically in bunches to Griner by her lawyer after they are vetted by Russian officials. Griner doesn’t have access to an email account; she is either made to write a reply on paper or verbally dictate her response.
Still, being able to communicate to the outside world, especially with her friends — even in a limited way — is at least a small win that has perhaps given Brittney Griner a semblance of normalcy despite the harrowing ordeal she finds herself in. And her loved ones can only hope that she finds her way home soon.
“Please know that you are loved by so many people,” Debbie Jackson, her high school coach, says in the interview with ESPN. “You’ve always had a true resolve and grit to get to the finish line. Know that you are going to get to the finish line in this trial, this ordeal that you are going through.”