On February 17, 2022, Russian Federal Customs Service detained WNBA superstar, Brittney Griner for possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. Griner was then arrested and charged with smuggling narcotics. This information was kept relatively quiet for weeks. Then, news of her detainment broke on March 5, Griner’s wife, Cherelle T. Griner, took to Instagram on March 7 expressing her love and concern about her wife’s detainment. “I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life” Griner said. “I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.” Afterward, many people spoke out in support and solidarity on social media and various other platforms.
The tension of seeing a Black woman’s fate in the hands of Russian officials as they waged an unjust war against Ukraine kept me on the edge of my seat; I couldn’t help but wonder how the war and other international relations between Russia and the rest of the world would affect Griner’s trial and her life.
Drafted as the number one pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft to the Phoenix Mercury, Britney Griner, a nine-year veteran, holds a notable, successful career with the team. She boasts several honors within the WNBA as a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, a 2014 WNBA Champion, a 6-time WNBA All-Star, and 8-time recipient of the WNBA Western Conference Player of the Week Award. Standing at 6-foot-9-inches, Griner currently holds the WNBA regular season record for blocks in a single game—and a season—as well as the single-season blocks average and career blocks average.
It’s safe to say Griner is a beast on the court, and she absolutely dominates the WNBA. But like many of her colleagues, she also plays overseas during the WNBA offseason. For the past eight years, Griner played for the UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. Even overseas, her dominance is consistent. She holds their all-time record for most blocks per game— with six achieved in one game during the 2017 season, and she is currently ranked their second-most leading rebounder—with 16 rebounds achieved in a 2019 game. Clearly, she dominates the Russian Premier League too.
On March 17, Russian authorities announced the first extension of her detainment. On May 13 they announced a second. While the Griner family remained hopeful, authorities extended the detainment once more to June 15 and set a trial date.
On July 1, the trial began, and on the advice of her Russian council, Griner pled guilty to the charges.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said, taking responsibility for “inadvertently” packing the vape cartridges, in hopes that she would receive a lesser sentence.
As the trial continued, Griner was allowed to address the court and the press from a cage within the courtroom, as news anchors, legal experts, and political pundits speculated on how it all might shake out and whether the Biden Administration would make good on the potential prisoner swap. Politically, Russia’s controversial invasion of the Ukraine, and diminished standing within Europe and America placed Griner in a precarious situation.
On August 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years, just a year less than the 10-year maximum sentence for drug smuggling. She will reportedly be sent to a Russian penal colony in Siberia, said to have an intense and rigid prison culture subject to brutality, overcrowding, disease, and harsh living and working conditions.
According to reports her legal team will appeal the sentence, and the Biden Administration is still working on her release. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said recently that Biden plans to meet with Griner’s wife, as well as the sister of U.S. Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, to assure them that his administration is committed to securing the release of their loved ones.
There is no way of knowing how the recent turn in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will impact U.S. citizens detained in the rogue state. Russia’s leader, Vladamir Putin, had to admit last week that his attempted taking of a neighboring nation is not going so well, and he now feeling heat from other Russian leaders to step down.
“President Putin’s actions are detrimental to the future of Russia and its citizens,” claims a petition shared on Twitter by Ksenia Torstrem, a deputy for St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky district. The statement, signed by 19 deputies claims to demand “the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the position of President of the Russian Federation.”
Putin, whose last experience in U.S. sports probably involved stealing the Super Bowl ring of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, is not likely to prize Griner’s athletic contributions, especially not at the sacrifice of power.