Brittney Griner, America’s famed female basketball player, won Olympic Gold in both Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020, and is a leading light of the Women’s National Basketball Association. But she made distinctly unenviable headlines, when she was arrested for cannabis in Russia last month. Russian authorities announced that there was an undetermined number of vape pens full of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
The exact date of Griner’s arrest remains unclear, as does the number of cartridges found. This information wasn’t revealed in the March 5 press release from Russia’s Federal Customs Service announcing her detention. Alarmingly, her whereabouts also remain unknown. We do know that she’s accused of “smuggling a narcotic substance”—a charge that carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison.
At an imposing 6-foot-9, the seven-time WNBA All-Star center’s freedom is hanging in the balance as Washington and Moscow face each other down over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As National Public Radio reports, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that an American was arrested in Russia, although he didn’t say Griner by name. However, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, identified her publicly as the detainee, as did the WNBA and her team, the Phoenix Mercury.
Tens of thousands of people have already signed the “Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the US” petition on Change.org. Journalist Tamryn Spruill, who covers women’s basketball, initiated the online signature campaign, writing: “Griner is a beloved global citizen who has used her platform since her entry into the WNBA to help others.”
Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who played football at the same university where Griner played basketball, says he’s working with the State Department to secure her release. But he admitted to ESPN: “Obviously, it’s also happening in the context of really strained relations. I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services.”
And a member of the US House Armed Services Committee acknowledged that “it’s going to be very difficult” to get Griner out of Russia. “Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) told CNN on March 7.
Will Griner Become Putin’s Pawn?
There’s clearly a risk that Griner’s case could become politicized. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) has openly suggested that Griner was targeted because she is an American.
“I’m closely monitoring reports of Texan @brittneygriner’s detention in Russia,” Castro tweeted. Referring to a US Marine who has been detained in Russia for more than two years, Castro added: “This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed. US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned.”
Trevor Reed was convicted on charges of confronting a police officer—which he denies. He has gone on hunger strike at the penal colony where he’s being held in Mordovia region, and his health has dramatically deteriorated. But there have been many others—including some arrested for cannabis, like Griner. We’ve noted the case of American teacher Marc Fogel, who was detained at Moscow’s airport in August 2021 with a small amount of cannabis that he used medicinally. He faces up to two decades in prison if convicted.
In 2019 was the egregious case of Naama Issachar, an American-Israeli woman similarly snared at the Moscow airport with a small amount of cannabis. Her release to Israel was won, by all appearances, in a deal between Russia and Israel to favor Moscow in a dispute with NATO member Poland.
At the current juncture, there are inestimably more weighty issues in play than a diplomatic spat.
One potential complicating factor already presents itself. The team Griner had been playing for in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg, is owned by Uzbekistan-born businessman Iskander Makhmudov. And as NPR notes, Makhmudov is named as one of the oligarchs tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin who may be sanctioned under the Putin Accountability Act, now pending before Congress.
Some have gone so far as to suggest that Griner was set up so that she could be exploited to exact concessions from the West.
“With all the problems with Russia and them attacking Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?” asked Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach, in comments to The New York Times. “Is this part of politics?”
Putin’s Anti-Cannabis, Anti-LGBTQ, Anti-Woman Police State
Griner also has big cultural factors going against her. Russia has unforgiving cannabis laws, and Putin’s consolidation of autocratic power has included a harsh crackdown on cannabis and other illegal drugs.
Griner’s status as a voice for the global LGBTQ community is another quality that won’t endear her to Putin. Griner is the first out gay athlete to win an endorsement contract from Nike. In her memoir, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, Griner wrote about her youthful experiences at Texas’ Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, which had an official policy against homosexuality at the time. LGBTQ students at Baylor say they still face discrimination.
The LGBTQ community in Russia continues to suffer increased harassment and discrimination. The country’s leading gay rights group, the Russian LGBT Network, was the latest to be targeted in the government’s current campaign to shut down independent rights groups. Last month, the Ministry of Justice accused the advocacy group of threatening “traditional values” and called for a court order to “liquidate” it along with its sponsor, the Sphere Foundation. In a rare case of judicial independence, the court turned down the government’s request.
A controversial Anti-Propaganda Law passed in 2013 prohibits “promoting non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” The law has been used to facilitate police repression of gay rights demonstrations. In 2021, the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an investigation against Netflix for possible violation of the Anti-Propaganda Law.
In 2015, Russia passed a law barring transsexuals, “exhibitionists” and “fetishists” from driving, finding that such “mental disorders” make them more likely to crash.
In the 2020 constitutional reform that essentially allowed Putin to remain president for life, the charter was also amended with language defining marriage as “the union of a man and woman,” barring same-sex matrimony. The reform package also included a proclamation of Russians’ faith in God.
The atmosphere in Putin’s Russia is anti-woman, as well as oppressively anti-gay. In January 2017, Russia’s parliament voted 380-3 to decriminalize domestic violence in cases where it doesn’t cause “substantial bodily harm” and doesn’t occur more than once a year. The move eliminates criminal liability in such cases, making it a violation punishable by a fine of around $500, or a 15-day arrest, provided there’s no repeat offense within 12 months. A Kremlin mouthpiece told journalists that family conflicts “don’t necessarily constitute domestic violence.”
The Russian Federation’s southern republic of Chechnya has particularly been a laboratory of the fast-consolidating Russian police state. In 2017, horrific reports emerged from Chechnya that authorities were rounding up gays in camps and subjecting them to torture—the first time that kind of thing had happened in Europe since Nazi Germany. Soon, the reign of terror was extending to drug users and small-time dealers who began facing grisly abuses at the hands of Chechen security forces as part of the same ultra-puritanical campaign. Reports described the use electric shock to induce suspects to “confess.”
The Russian LGBT Network is still calling for the release of gay and gender-non-conforming youth being held in Chechen detention centers on various transparently bogus charges.
Griner Also Victim of Pay Inequity for Women in US Sports
Griner’s case also touches on the contentious question of the gross pay inequality for women in US sports. Male NBA players receive guaranteed million-dollar contracts, while WNBA players frequently have to moonlight for foreign teams to keep the cash coming in.
Griner had been playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s off-season to make more money since 2015. Last year, she helped the team win its fifth EuroLeague Women championship. Even after a 2020 agreement with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), the average income of a WNBA player is less than $130,000, with salaries topping out at around $500,000, as CNN reports.
On the Change.org petition, Tamryn Spruill explains: “Like many athletes competing in the WNBA, Griner plays abroad during the WNBA offseason because her salary is exponentially higher in other countries.”
Peniel Joseph is the author of The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century. In a commentary for CNN on the case, he writes: “While Griner’s fame and privilege could shield her somewhat, her identity as a Black gay woman athlete facing the Russian legal system is a precarious one, and as the war intensifies and diplomatic options wane, Americans must not look away.”