OPINION: The Unfair Scrutiny and Political Imprisonment of Brittney Griner



FILE – Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner pauses on the court during the second half of a WNBA basketball game against the Seattle Storm, Sept. 3, 2019, in Phoenix. Griner is easily the most prominent American citizen known to be jailed by a foreign government. Yet as a crucial hearing approaches next month, the case against her remains shrouded in mystery, with little clarity from the Russian prosecutors. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Andrew DeCapua, Sports Editor

Brittney Griner, a two-time Women’s National Basketball Association Defensive Player of the Year, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, and two-time Olympic gold medal winner was detained by Russian police earlier this year when Russian Federal Customs agents found a marijuana vape cartridge in her luggage.

In August, months after being detained, Griner was found guilty of drug possession charges and was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.

Support for Griner across the United States of America has been mixed. Many of Griner’s peers have shown their support, including her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, and the WNBA Players Association – both of which showed their support via social media.

While Griner’s peers have been in support of returning her home safely, many members of the public have voiced their opinions against her. During a 2020 interview with The Republic, Griner made headlines for her opinion on the national anthem and if it should be played before WNBA games.

“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,” Griner said during the interview. “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, and I’ll not be out there.”

Griner’s comments were not forgotten when she was detained and sentenced to prison. Many of Griner’s detractors took to social media after hearing the news to mock the WNBA star, with many of them bringing up her prior comments regarding the national anthem.

What many of Griner’s detractors fail to realize about her interview is that she also states she has pride in the U.S. and is proud to be an American.

“I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and [was] a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country,” Griner said during the interview.

Despite what some people may think, Griner’s comments about the national anthem do not mean that she should be mistreated by the Russian government or that the U.S. government should leave her in Russia to serve an unfair sentence.

I believe that as an American overseas, it is essential to know that the U.S. Constitution and American laws do not travel with you. It would help if you abode by the laws of the country you are visiting or working in.

Griner did not follow the laws that Russia has and should suffer some circumstances for breaking the law. I understand, but a nine-year sentence does not fit the crime committed, even in Russia.

According to a report from the Associated Press, Griner’s lawyers said other cases in Russia similar to Griner’s have resulted in an average sentence of just five years – about half the length of time of Griner’s sentence.

She pleaded guilty in a Russian court on July 27, which opened the doors for a potential prisoner swap. According to reports from CBS News, the Russian government has the power to overturn any court ruling, and in Russian criminal cases, only less than one percent ever gets acquitted. So, her guilty plea seems to be a move to open the doors for a potential prisoner swap with the U.S.

The detaining of Griner came on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The timing of this situation appears to be a political move for Russia. According to reports from The New York Times, Griner was arrested on Feb. 17, but the Russian government did not announce the arrest until three weeks later, on March 5. Meanwhile, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

With relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorating due to the Ukraine invasion, it is not a good time for the U.S. to negotiate with Russia. The Russian government can use Griner as a political pawn to protect its interests in Ukraine by remaining in negotiations with the U.S. to distract from or keep the nation out of conflict.

Negotiations between the U.S. and Russian governments have been underway, including talk of the two nations trading prisoners.

The U.S. will look to free former Marine Paul Whelan along with Griner. Whelan is an American and former corporate security director accused by the Russian government of being a spy and was sentenced to sixteen years in prison.

According to reports from the Moscow Times, the Russian government wants the U.S. to free convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

Bout, also known as “The Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. In addition to Bout, the Russian government wants to free one other prisoner in the deal. According to reports by CNN, they’ve requested that Vadim Krasikov also be released.

This is where it gets tricky, though, because Krasikov was convicted of murder just last year in Germany and is in prison under German custody.

It is unclear at this time if the German government will be willing to hand over Krasikov, but according to reports made by CNN, the U.S. government has reached out to the German government regarding their participation in the deal but does not believe that the Russian offer is a legitimate one.

“Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told CNN. “It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

It is still unclear if the Russian government is willing to make a deal or if they are using Griner and Whelan as political pawns to keep the U.S. from getting involved with Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Only time will tell if Griner and Whelan can be freed. Still, in the meantime, innocent people have been detained, and their lives will undoubtedly be changed forever because of unfair and unethical treatment by the Russian government.