Brittney Griner | Caught in the war

On Thursday, a court in Russia handed American basketball star Brittney Griner a nine-year sentence for possessing two vape cartridges containing cannabis (marijuana) oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

The 31-year-old, a centre for WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) league side Phoenix Mercury, was detained by customs officials for carrying the illegal substance on February 17 after she landed in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the off-season. The trial started in early July and the conviction was largely expected, more so after Griner pleaded guilty to the charge by admitting that she had made an “honest mistake” but did not “conspire or plan to commit this crime”.

But it is the severity of punishment — nearly a decade in a penal colony, a remote settlement away from the populace amid harsh surroundings — that has sent shock waves. Coming as it does against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, in which the U.S. has backed Ukraine, it is a dispute with a rather deep political hue.

Such detentions have been used in the past to advance many a nation’s strategic and political goals. But rarely has someone as high-profile as Griner been involved. She is considered among the best and most dominant women’s players ever to play the game and is a double Olympic champion (2016 and 2020), a two-time FIBA World Cup winner (2014 and 2018), a four-time EuroLeague titlist with Yekaterinburg, a WNBA victor with Mercury and an eight-time WNBA All-Star.

Growing up, Griner was marked out as a prodigious talent, a promise she kept rather well. Blessed with long arms, great height — she is now 6’9” — and free-flowing athletic ability, she was known as “the high school girl who can dunk a basketball”. The dunk is a flashy, signature point-scoring method in the sport but is seen in higher numbers in the men’s game. But Griner could do more than just jump high; she would sink it in the style of her idol LeBron James, a trait that characterises her to this day.

Griner is also a pioneer off the court, coming out as gay at the age of 22. Sport swears by the ideals of friendship, respect and equality, but still has one of the most stifling environments for those wanting to assert their gender identities by going beyond the usual male-female binary. Recently, Russian tennis player Daria Kasatkina came out as gay and spoke of “so many subjects [that] are taboo.” Griner did this almost a decade ago, to be feted as a trailblazer by peers and fans alike.

Financial reasons

There may have been multiple reasons for such a champion athlete to additionally ply her trade abroad, away from her comfort zone, but one among them was economics. A report published in CBS, an American broadcasting network, put the number of WNBA players competing internationally during the off-season to supplement their income at about 70 (out of 144 roster spots).

The same report put WNBA players’ minimum and maximum annual salaries at $60,471 and $228,094, respectively. The men in NBA comparatively earn at least $925,000 and upwards of $28 million.

Griner’s wife Cherelle told ABC News as much. “BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas,” she said. “She has only had one Thanksgiving (festival) in nine years. Just because, you know, she can’t make enough money in the WNBA to sustain her life.”

Griner was among a dozen WNBA players playing in Russia and Ukraine. Following the outbreak of the war, all of them returned, except her. After an initial period of silence from U.S. government officials, the issue escalated and is now being discussed publicly at the level of President Joe Biden, with the stage being set for ‘hostage diplomacy’ with Russia.

The stakes are so high that it was among the topics reportedly discussed in a meeting late last month between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, their first direct conversation since the war broke out in late February.

While the U.S. has termed Griner’s arrest and subsequent conviction a case of “wrongful detention”, Russia has insisted that it is a case of the country’s law taking its own course. With U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low, a good faith discussion to secure her release seems far-fetched.