Feature image of Brittney Griner, whose appeal was turned down today by Russian courts, by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Last week was Brittney Griner’s birthday. She turned 32. Teammates and coaches took to social media to celebrate her greatness — but also her goofiness, sharing personal photos of her bright smile, telling stories of her warmth, like the time she visited a coach’s hometown in Italy only to delight local residents who had never seen anyone that tall or when she let a rookie wear her gold medal so that she could dream big. Her wife, Cherelle, shared a picture of them together, Cherelle basically climbing on BG’s back, a brilliant blue sky behind them, calling Brittney “my favorite person!” Even here at Autostraddle we plastered her face on our homepage, a small reminder sent into the universe, “You Are So Loved and Missed!”
Today, Brittney Griner’s appeal in the Russian court system was denied, upholding her nine-year sentence.
Today marks exactly 250 days that the most famous Black lesbian athlete in the world has been wrongfully detained in a hostile nation, with what seems to be many more days ahead of us to go. But while CNN carelessly picks a title, “Russian Court upholds Brittney Griner’s drug smuggling conviction,” for an internationally known elite athlete whom nearly everyone agrees is being used as a political pawn (it’s hard to imagine they’d pick a similar title for say, LeBron James) — I want to center BG’s humanity, her joy.
Today’s ruling came from the three-judge panel of an appeals court near Moscow, according to reporting from The New York Times. Griner participated in today’s proceedings via video from the detention center where she’s been held since her arrest on February 17th. According to her lawyers, it could still be a few months before she’s officially moved to a prison colony to serve out her nine-year sentence.
Giner, who is a WNBA All-Star and plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was traveling to Yekaterinburg in February, where she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg for years, bringing them multiple EuroLeague championships. It is not uncommon for WNBA players to play international ball during the offseason, where pay is often better than it is in the United States. Russian customs officials said they found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a type of cannabis, in her luggage. This summer, Griner admitted her guilt in court (though it is worth remembering that Russian courts have a 99% conviction rate, and that Russian officials had previously made it known through backchannels that they’d only discuss a prison swap or deal for Griner after its judicial process had concluded. Griner’s admission should be read within those contexts). Griner said she had no intention to break Russian law, and that the small amount of hashish oil in her luggage was due to negligence. She had no traces of cannabis found in her system.
Since her sentencing in August, Griner’s lawyers have argued that a nine-year prison term — nearly the 10-year maximum for this type of conviction — was too harsh for a first-time offense and was politically motivated. That viewpoint is shared by many officials in the United States.
There are two higher Russian courts above the appellate division who made today’s decision, culminating in the Supreme Court, but her lawyers said they had not yet decided whether to take the case up any further. Higher courts in Russia do not typically overturn verdicts, especially in a case involving foreign policy and with interests that go against the Kremlin. Which ultimately means that today’s decision leaves us in the same place we were in August, when Griner was first sentenced; in July, when she plead guilty; or every day since February when she was first detained: Her best and only hope for returning home depends on the outcome of negotiations between U.S. and Russian governments.
In a released statement, national security adviser Jake Sullivan called out today’s ruling as “another sham judicial proceeding,” promising that U.S. officials have “continued to engage with Russia through every available channel” to secure the freedom of Griner and other Americans they believe are wrongfully detained in Russia.
It’s been widely reported over the last few months that the Biden administration — facing steady pressure from Black women-led groups that are also a core of the Democratic voting block — and Putin’s government have engaged in negotiations about a possible exchange of prisoners. It’s believed that over the summer, the United States proposed exchanging Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who’s been held in Russia since December 2018, for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for charges including conspiring to kill Americans. In response, Russian officials made an unspecified counteroffer that was described at the time as in “bad faith” and not considered serious by the White House.
There have not been any official updates about negotiations since then. However, Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been unofficially negotiating with Russian officials as a private citizen, said in this month that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Griner and Whelan could be exchanged as soon as before the end of this year. President Biden and Putin are both expected to attend the G20 summit next month in Indonesia, and Biden has said he would only only speak to Putin if it was to discuss Griner’s case. Of course, relationships between the United States and Russia are the worst they’ve been in decades, you don’t need me to tell you that, and there is the war in Ukraine, which has also left U.S. headlines of late, but is very much still ongoing. Any hopes of negotiations for Griner’s freedom should understood within those larger political geographies.
Writing about Brittney Griner’s case is always hard because I want to get the small details right, even when they feel hopeless, they matter. (Though I also don’t want to subject us to needless cruelty, if you’d like a better understanding of what a Russian penal colony is like, you can read so here). It’s hard to describe what’s happening without sounding hyperbolic, because naming the obvious systems at play — the capitalism, sexism that lead to WNBA players making so below their worth in this country that they end up playing in Russia to begin with; the racism, homophobia and specific anti-butch and anti-masc bias that makes it so easy for places like CNN to splash words like “drug smuggler” next to Griner’s name in a headline without a second thought; the combination of all these things that leaves Griner as an afterthought in most mainstream media coverage, including all of last week’s new season debut of the NBA, which could easily be Griner’s biggest stage and best chance to raise public pressure — can sound reductive. That’s how big it all is.
Superficial understandings of Brittney Griner’s case have turned her into a lightning rod for hate; I have yet to write about her without being harassed. Everyone who has ever heard her name has an opinion, and yet we are also not hearing her name nearly enough.
At the center of this sprawling international pressure cooker is one person. A masc Black lesbian whose face reminds me of the greatest loves of my life. Who deserves a future, caring, and softness.
And if I can be honest here, I’m just so angry. I’m angry at how helpless I feel, how writing these posts, one after another — it starts to feel like tilting at windmills. Anger is sometimes all I can see, can breathe. It took me over two hours to write this. I can’t bring Cherelle Griner’s wife, her favorite person, back to her. I keep screaming into the air until I’m hoarse, but I can’t make BG feel less alone as she sits in her cell.
But Brittney Griner does not need my anger. My anger is not productive here. She needs my optimism, my hope.
Bring BG Home. Run it ‘till it’s backwards.