Brittney Griner is arguably the WNBA’s biggest star and one of the greatest basketball players of all time. At six feet tall, her prowess on and off the field is hard to miss.
“She’s like no one who’s ever played and she’s dominated every level she’s ever been,” ESPN investigative reporter TJ Quinn said on cafemadrid’s daily news explainer podcast, Explained today† ‘And then she also became a kind of cultural icon. For her sexuality, for her struggle with psychological problems. She has become someone who is truly more than an athlete to the people who follow her.”
But like many WNBA players, the lack of fair pay drew her to play in Russia – where she is now being held after Moscow airport security found cannabis oil in her luggage. Now the US State Department is turning up the heat to free Griner. this episode of Explained today investigates what it will take to bring her home. A partial transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Brittney Griner is one of the greatest players in the history of her game. She was the top high school player in the country. She signed with Baylor, won a national title, All-American, the No. 1 overall draft pick in the WNBA when she went on to become a professional, perpetual All-Star. What stands out is her size. And she plays a kind of physical, dominant game, both defensively and offensively, that stands out. But she also dunks in games, which is not common in the WNBA.
So it’s fair to say she’s one of the best players in the WNBA.
One of the greatest players in basketball history.
What is one of the best players in basketball history doing in Russia?
The women who play in the WNBA, the highest echelon of basketball in that sport, can earn a few hundred thousand dollars at most. There is a hard salary cap on what they can earn. There are limited marketing opportunities for women who play professional basketball. But in Russia, as in some countries in Europe and the Middle East, she can earn more than a million dollars playing for one of the teams there owned by oligarchs. So there’s a long history of WNBA players earning something that would be a good salary for most people, but very low for someone with their skills, to Russia, Turkey, where they earn much higher salaries. And so she’s spent her off-season earning three or four – sometimes five – times the salary she could earn in the US playing in Russia.
So let’s talk about how Brittney Griner ends up being held in Russia. Where does that story begin?
That starts on February 17 when she flew there, as she has so often done, landing at the airport outside Moscow.
You look in the video that customs officials released, and she just goes through the baggage check as normal. And then she’s taken out of line. What happens next is up for debate.
She actually didn’t say one way or the other, and neither did her reps. And from that moment on she was in pre-trial detention, but there was no attention for that in this country. Russia has not announced it. They kept a very low profile. Its representatives were in contact with the United States Department of State almost immediately. And the advice the State Department gave them was: “Look, you have to be on your guard now. This can go both ways. Russia has, nominally at least, a criminal justice system. It is arguably corrupt and subject to the “rule of one man, Vladimir Putin and his government, but there is one and it works. And until they have some idea how she’s being treated, it’s better for you to keep a low profile.” Because the other path is, if she becomes too valuable, if she gets a lot of attention, well, then she’s a potential asset to Putin and his government for something they’re willing to trade in. And that wasn’t the path you wanted to go. .
They followed the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and kept very low profile until about three weeks later, in early March, Russian customs officials announced it. And when we heard in this country that she had been detained, there was the response from the media: “Wait a minute. How could one of the world’s best athletes have been locked up for over two weeks and nobody knew about it?” And that was on purpose.
They really wanted to keep a low profile. She’s got lawyers there trying to see, “Can we solve this through the criminal justice system?” And when you had some members of Congress and prominent athletes raising the issue, “If this was a male athlete, if this was LeBron James or anyone else, people would go crazy!” The people who support Brittney Griner deplore the inequalities in women’s sport in this country. But in this one case, it worked in their favor here, because they felt like, “Okay, let’s shut up as long as we can, see if we can work this out.” Because if she essentially becomes a hostage to Putin, then you’re in a whole new world.
As I recall, it felt like because this was happening so close to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, maybe Russia was trying to gain a little influence over the United States by holding this top athlete because he was carrying hash oil.
It is very possible. And people following Russia immediately thought of the fact that there is a well-established history of Russian law enforcement planting drugs on people in order to arrest them. This is what they do. And while the war hadn’t started yet, the invasion hadn’t started on February 17, they knew it was coming. So for those inclined to think this was a setup, the pieces were there. There is a history of Russia doing that.
The fact that she is eye-catching, easy to recognize, the fact that she is also a six-foot black lesbian, which in Putin’s Russia is a warning to all good Russian mothers: “Look what happened to your kids will happen if you liberalize like the West” — they knew the motivation was there and she was potentially a chip to trade for something if they wanted it.
But there are also some people who say, “Well, wait a minute, they don’t care. They arrested her. It’s very possible she did it. And just because they’re politicking it or they might be willing to trade it for her doesn’t mean she didn’t necessarily commit the crime she was accused of. Who knows?” But you know, what the US government has become at some point has become clear is that Russia is open to business and they don’t have to wait a year before she goes to trial – you can keep someone in pre-trial detention for a year. over there – that it’s time to get moving.
So mama is the word when everyone finds out. But now here we are, almost 80 days later. Do we know what Brittney’s experience has been like? Has she been able to speak out about this publicly?
She doesn’t have that at all. The only connection to her is her representatives at her attorneys. US consular officials were able to visit her in March and reported that she was fine. What I hear from people around her is that she is good, seen. I mean, she’s in jail in a foreign country. She doesn’t speak the language. Presumably there are people around her who do speak English. She has reading material. There were reports that it was difficult to find a bed that suited her, which would make sense – she is six feet tall – and that, given the circumstances, she is doing well. But there is no way to independently verify that.
Imagine you show up at the beginning of a season and the biggest player in the game isn’t there. You can’t just pretend Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or someone just isn’t there. And it was hard for players who wanted to speak out more, but now they know they have some freedom to start doing that.
You saw a gradual increase in how much they talked about her. At the WNBA draft a few weeks ago, the Commissioner’s first statement was about Brittney Griner. And last week there was a discussion about putting a sticker on the floor of games. And these are all intentional. It’s all strategic to gradually get more attention for her case.
And the US government is now talking about her too.
That was the big change. The people around her waited a bit for permission or a sign that it is now time to really speak out.
When you talk about protests, you have to think about: who are you actually protesting against, or are you trying to put public pressure on Vladimir Putin? Because that probably won’t work. This is someone who launched an invasion, united much of the world against him, who was hit by the biggest sanctions in geopolitical history, and that didn’t change him. So it seems unlikely that a hashtag will affect what it does.
The real pressure they want to create is on the U.S. government — to try to force the White House and the State Department to make her a priority, make a deal, and bring her home. And there you see some tension. The Families of Brittney Griner and Former US Marine Trevor Reed — Who Was [detained in Russia] for over two years and just came home – have one goal, and that is to get their loved ones home.
The US government has several goals. It’s trying to get one, get those Americans back, two, not set a precedent that they fear will endanger more Americans by creating an incentive. And serve three, larger geopolitical interests. And then [the families] want to do is to put as much pressure on the US government as possible. And the feeling that if they can put this in the forefront of Joe Biden’s mind…it will do a lot of good if the President of the United States, or Ron Klain, his chief of staff, calls the State Department to say, ” What is happening?” That might be the kind of pressure that pushes things forward.
Listen to the full episode of Explained today wherever you get podcasts†