Feature image photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Today a Russian court found basketball superstar and two time gold medal Olympian Brittney Griner guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal narcotics in Russia. According to her lawyers, she was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. She was also fined 1 million rubles, roughly $16,300. For those of us who have watched Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia (now totaling 168 days) closely, this verdict was an inevitability — the charges that Griner has been held with come with up to a 10 year maximum sentence — but knowing it was coming does not make today hurt any less.
Griner has been held in Russia since February 17th due to vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a form of cannabis, found in her luggage while playing for the Russian professional basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season. It’s common practice for WNBA stars to play overseas to supplement their WNBA salaries — particularly for superstars like Griner, a former Defensive Player of the Year and WNBA champion, in college the only NCAA player ever to both score over 2,000 points and block over 500 shots, the first out athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike dating back to 2013. Griner’s lawyers have maintained that Griner had medical clearance for the oil in the United States, and that she brought the substance into Russia by mistake, with no intention of breaking Russian law. There were no traces of cannabis found in Griner’s system.
Today in court, Griner’s legal representation reiterated these facts, also asking the court to take into account Griner’s role as a star developing Russian basketball. “There should be a milder penalty,” said Maria Blagovolnia, one of Griner’s lawyers, according to reporting from The New York Times. For her part, Griner told the court about being raised as a young girl in Houston with parents who taught her “two important things: One, take ownership for your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you get.” She continued, “that’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges; I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges… but I had no intention to break Russian law. I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
Griner previously plead guilty last month, on July 7th, in a move that has been hoped by legal experts to signal the beginning of an exchange for her release between Russian and the United States. The final verdict was all but foretold in a Russian system with a 99% conviction rate, which leaves Griner’s fate left up to diplomatic bargaining between the two nations. Russian courts are also known to give harsher sentences to high profile Americans — in 2020 they sentenced former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed to nine years in prison, the harshest punishment available for his supposed crime. After two years in prison, Reed was later exchanged for a Russian pilot who had been convicted in the United States in just April of this year. And of course, no one currently wrongfully held in Russia has a higher profile than Brittney Griner.
Fellow WNBA stars know this, and in their latest act of advocacy — the WNBA players’ union (WNBPA) has been instrumental in keeping Griner’s name in national headlines — this morning several players, including WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike, took to social media in a coordinated campaign to leverage their star power in Russia, noting that a potential harsh sentence would harm future players joining the international league.
Russian officials have stated that a verdict in Griner’s trial was a necessary precondition for any future exchange on her behalf, so in that framing, today’s verdict is a next step. It’s believed by most experts that Griner’s wrongful detainment is being used as a bargaining chip by Russia in the midst of the war in Ukraine. According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken discussed Griner’s detainment with his Russian counterpart Sergey V. Lavrov just last week, in their first phone call since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
After today’s verdict, President Biden stated the sentencing was “unacceptable” and “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney” before reinforcing previous statements that his administration will continue to pursue all avenues to bring Griner home. Secretary of State Blinken echoed those sentiments, tweeting that Griner’s conviction and sentence “spotlights our concerns with the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions.”
￼Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBPA, noted that after this morning’s “unjust” sentencing, the only way forward is a prisoner exchange, calling a such an exchange “critically important to BG, to her family, to our country. We’re counting on this administration.”
— WNBPA (@TheWNBPA) August 4, 2022
It was widely reported last week that the U.S. Government offered a deal of exchanging known Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Paul Whelan, another American currently imprisoned in Russia. This came after months of consistent pressure and mounting frustration in the United States by Black women and queer leaders, activists, Griner’s WNBA teammates, and her wife Cherelle — who has breathtakingly lead the charge.
Unfortunately, thus far no breakthroughs in bargaining have been reported. CNN sources believe that Russia may want to secure a release for Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in their domestic spy agency who is currently in German custody after being convicted of murder, in addition to Bout, in exchange for Griner and Whelan’s freedom. On Monday, the White House said that Russia had made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the U.S. did not consider serious. Russian officials have also insisted that the diplomatic negotiations over a prisoner exchange should be handled discreetly, with a Kremlin spokesman saying, “megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to result.”
Of course that’s precisely what has made everything about Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment so difficult. A masculine presenting, Black lesbian — in the United States, let alone in Russia — does not get freedom unless there is noise made. Every bone in my body knows this to be true, and if you are honest with yourself I bet you know it, too. There is absolutely nothing in the history of either country that would say otherwise.
At the same time, that quiet is what continues to be asked of us, along with an abundance of good faith that the tea leaves are being read. Even though it took President Biden nearly five months to call Cherelle Griner and give direct assurances that her country was with her in her grief, a basic public care part of his job. Even though the State department fumbled a major milestone that would have allowed Brittney and Cherelle to talk to each other on the phone. Even though NBA players have been slow to join their WNBA counterparts and use their platform to advocate for her, when they know better than most that only reason Griner was playing in Russia to begin with was due to the pay discrepancy between their two leagues.
And I get it. No one wants to say or do the wrong thing, no one wants to put BG in more jeopardy. But we also all know that if this was a different kind of basketball player who was being held, a different kind of star, none of this would be happening — not like this.
Brittney Griner was easily marked because she’s nearly seven feet tall, Black, masc, and a lesbian. She’s also easily forgotten about because of those same things. That is heartbreaking and heavy. It is unspeakably dangerous. And I’m tired of not just naming it out loud. Because we all know it to be true.
There is so much thrust upon Brittney Griner’s shoulders, more than a half century of fraught international policy, centuries of histories of race, gender, sexuality, the slick of fame and sports (somehow this week even Donald Trump got involved, in his usual spew of racism I’m sure, I didn’t look into it) — and at the same time today just she’s one person. Someone’s wife. A daughter. Someone who laughs. Who is must be so terrified, must be so exhausted, who was trying to make a living doing what she’s uniquely the best at in this world, and just wants to come home.
It’s so hard to keep writing these posts in what can most often feel like a helpless situation. Today is harder than most. But I have to hope — because really, what’s the other choice? — that this guilty verdict is the next step to bringing her home, quickly and safely. There’s no other way.
This post is being updated throughout the day as more reporting becomes available.