Brittney Griner Sneak Peeks Show a Complicated Path to Exit

One hundred and forty-one days. This is how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That’s how long she’s been stuck in t...


One hundred and forty-one days.

This is how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That’s how long she’s been stuck in the middle of a high-stakes US-Russia standoff at exactly the wrong time, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin continues his gruesome invasion of Ukraine and echoes the return of the cold. War.

One hundred and forty-one days. This is how long Griner has been in limbo.

What terrible uncertainty and fear she must feel, facing a decade in a Russian prison if convicted. Griner captured that emotion in her recent letter to President Biden. “I’m terrified to be here forever,” she wrote. She added, “Please don’t forget me.”

The seven-time All-Star center of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty Thursday, admitting wrongdoing. In so many words, Griner and her lawyer said her troubles started with a mistake: She was quickly getting ready for her flight to Russia in February and had inadvertently packed the smoldering cartridges with small amounts of hash oil – less than a single gram, according to prosecutors. She said she had no intention of breaking Russian law.

Experts say a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system fully stacked against the defendants. Griner may have chosen not to fight a battle she couldn’t win, which helped expedite the closing of her case.

We don’t know at the moment. The teammates, supporters and wife of the Mercury Center, Cherelle Griner, could not speak to him directly. With the war in Ukraine, all we in America have seen or heard of Griner have been appearances in a Moscow-area courtroom that she attended in handcuffs.

Uncertainty and complication hover over this terrible affair. Russian media have claims that talks about a possible prisoner exchange are already underway, although US officials have not confirmed this. A floating swap would include a Russian national Victor Bout, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2012 with a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who say they intend to kill Americans. At his sentencing, prosecutors called Bout “among the most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers in the world.” He is known as the Merchant of Death.

This lopsided prospective deal shows the difficulty of negotiating Griner’s release. Would it be a fair trade to trade a basketball star who transported hash oil to Russia for a man convicted of participating in an international conspiracy against the Americans?

Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, served two years of a 16-year sentence on espionage charges he denied. Is it right to push for Griner’s release before Whelan’s? Should the United States negotiate to have him included in a deal, even if it delays both of their releases?

Issues of race, gender and sexuality further complicate matters.

Griner is tattooed, dreadlocked, black, and three inches under seven feet tall. She does not conform to widely accepted gender stereotypes. She is married to a woman and is an outspoken LGBTQ activist. Putin has a well documented contempt for LGBTQ people, which only heightens the fears of his followers for his well-being.

His appearance, sexuality, and outspokenness mean that contempt for Griner runs just as thick in parts of the United States. So it’s fair to wonder if American citizen outrage would be stronger and more widespread if Griner were a male star athlete who fit right into a traditionally accepted role.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” said Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach with the Mercury. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It is a statement about the value of a black person. It is a statement about the value of a homosexual person.

Nygaard may be right. Male athletes are the beneficiaries of a sports ecosystem in which their leagues get more television time, their endorsements generate more money, and their accomplishments are touted more. If it were James in custody – or Stephen Curry or Tom Brady – it stands to reason that their fame would prompt a more fervent call for release than it has for Griner.

On the other hand, imagine what Russia would demand in exchange for LeBron James: the ransom would likely far exceed a single arms dealer languishing in a US prison, especially given the tension between Biden and Putin.

If this was James in custody, well, well more than a few hundred people would have shown up to rally for his release. Wednesday, approximately 300 people gathered at the Mercure arena, Phoenix’s Footprint Center, to show support for Griner. The building can accommodate 17,000 people.

I visited the arena in April for a Mercury preseason game and was surprised by Griner’s muted recognition in a city where she gave so much. Known as BG, she helped lead the Mercury to a WNBA title in 2014, but is equally admired there for helping the homeless and advocating for LGBTQ rights. Local sports radio announcers barely mentioned her, instead they kept talking about the Phoenix Suns competing in the NBA playoffs.

At the time, Griner’s Mercury teammates were following the lead of his advisers, who decided to keep a low profile and not raise any heckling that might draw Putin’s ire. It was clear that the players wanted to be more direct. As they talked about how much they loved their teammate and followed the advised path, the fierceness and pain in their eyes showed me that they wanted to say more.

The approach reversed a few weeks later when the US State Department declared that Griner had been “wrongfully detained”. The league and its players have begun to roar – as they often do over pressing social issues. Teams honored Griner by pasting his initials on league grounds. On social media, in press conferences and in interviews, the players have demanded that Biden and the White House do whatever it takes to bring her home.

“Free BG,” DeWanna Bonner of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun said, speaking to the press. “We are BG We love BG Free her.”

The NBA joined the chorus. Players wore “We are BG” t-shirts during practices held during the NBA Finals. James, Curry and many other stars have spoken out, demanding his release. Athletes from other sports joined them. Following Griner’s guilty plea on Thursday, Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, wore a white jacket with Griner’s initials stitched onto its lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What a rollercoaster of strategy and emotion. Thursday’s hearing brought another searing twist, seeing Griner there in court, begging for mercy.

“This situation with BG, it’s difficult for everyone in our team,” Nygaard said ahead of Thursday night’s home game against Liberty.

The court hearing and the admission of guilt. Images of Griner, hands tied, eyes wide, surrounded by Russian police.

“When your friend is in danger,” Nygaard added, and that friend says “he’s scared, it’s hard to walk away from those things.”

One hundred and forty-one days and counting.

Brittney Griner is away from home, and it’s unclear when she’ll be released.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Brittney Griner Sneak Peeks Show a Complicated Path to Exit
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