Two months ago, I wrote a piece about WNBA star Brittney Griner that garnered a lot of attention in a way that ended up making me uncomfortable. The article examined the circumstances of Griner’s arrest at the hands of Russian authorities, who claim to have found hashish oil in her carry-on bag. The central contention of the piece was that Griner’s detention had not received media coverage commensurate with her status as one of the best women’s basketball players on earth — a point that resonated broadly. It was published just days after news of her arrest had leaked (just a couple of weeks into Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine), at a time when, as I learned later, a fierce debate was happening among Griner’s closest friends and family and supporters.
The unusual reach of my story resulted in two people connected to Griner contacting me, each representative of the different sides of that debate. One asked me to keep shouting about Griner from the mountaintops, reasoning that more publicity would force the Russians’ hand. The other person asked me to kindly stop talking about her. Some close to Griner wanted to tamp down discussion of her plight, lest Russia attempt to use her as some sort of trading chip; the idea was, I guess, to make her look like a lower-profile detainee than she really was.
Both points of view were understandable, but I ultimately sided with the latter: What mattered most was getting Griner home safe, and, lacking any information from inside the Russian government, it seemed best to err on the side of caution. I haven’t written about the case since. It appeared most of the sports media took a similar approach. For weeks there was little mention of Griner on ESPN and WNBA.com or in most sports publications. Former WNBA star Lisa Leslie confirmed the media blackout, saying she was told “not to make a big fuss” at first. It wasn’t just the media: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview on Tuesday that the league had been in contact with the White House and State Department, and deliberately took a low-key approach in the early days of Griner’s detention.
But this strategy hasn’t worked. Two months later, Griner — who, like many WNBA players, has played in a Russian league to supplement her income for years — remains in prison. Her lawyer said over the weekend that Griner’s “pretrial detention” has been extended for a month, though he expressed hope that her trial would begin soon. In another disturbing turn, the Russian news agency TASS reported that negotiations are under way for the government to exchange Griner with a man the outlet describes as “Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout.” Bout is actually a notorious arms dealer, who The New Yorker labeled “the quintessential figure of international crime.” He has been in a federal penitentiary in Illinois since 2012. The U.S. has been fighting Russian attempts to get him back for years. If someone like Bout is the asking price for Griner’s freedom, she isn’t getting out of Russia anytime soon.
Yet another ominous sign is the way TASS described Griner as having been jailed “over suspicions of drug smuggling.” The original accusation — still not proven or even substantiated — involved a small amount of hashish oil. If Griner did bring this into the country, it was a poor decision, especially given the geopolitical circumstances, but one that has put her in much hotter water than the offense (again, if true) warrants. Now the charge appears to have been elevated to “trafficking.” Griner made her first public appearance on Friday, and the State Department said, after she met with U.S. diplomats, that she’s “doing as well as can be expected in these circumstances,” which doesn’t sound particularly optimistic. U.S. diplomats still aren’t in regular contact with her.
Griner’s supporters have gotten the memo that more publicity about her ordeal is a good thing. The WNBA is now fighting for Griner’s release out in the open, even putting her initials and jersey number on all 12 of the league’s home courts. The WNBA Players Association has called on the White House to do “whatever it takes” to get Griner back. There hasn’t been any pushback on this, which seems to be an admission that the previous strategy has been ineffective.
This has all produced a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. One of the points of my original piece was that the WNBA is successful and popular enough that when one of its best players is detained by the Russian government, it should be a huge freaking story. (Imagine if Tom Brady, Stephen Curry, or even someone half as famous from the NFL or NBA were in a similar position.) But what seems to have been the government’s plan — that the Russian government could be persuaded Griner was low-profile enough not to raise a ruckus over — would fly in the face of everything Griner has worked for throughout her entire incredibly successful career. We should all be yelling “Free Brittney Griner!” right now. And maybe we should have been yelling it this whole time. The strategy shift that has taken place is understandable. But you can also understand why the mixed messaging has made it harder for the sports world to coalesce around the Free Griner! movement that’s clearly now necessary. Again, she’s one of the greatest basketball players in the world! It’s outrageous that they’re holding her! Of course we should be screaming for her to be freed! How did we ever think we shouldn’t be?
To be clear, more national outrage may not be of much help to Griner. And it’s possible that no strategy on her behalf could work. Negotiating with Russia has generally been a fool’s errand since the Ukraine invasion happened (the release of Trevor Reed, who faced similar circumstances to Griner, is a rare exception) and was a tough slog well before that. The coverage of and reaction to her troubles may be evidence of a societal double standard, but it is not the reason she finds herself in an awful situation. At this point, one can only hope that Griner is released sooner rather than later, and receives a welcome home worthy of the star she is.