Welcome home, Brittney Griner!!!!!!!!!!!
Let's rejoice together while we filter out fact from fiction.
A couple of very quick housekeeping notes:
I included a lot of happy tweets at the end of this email so it might be too big to load completely in your email inbox. You can click here to read it in full in your browser.
Also, the Power Plays Sylvia Fowles Holiday Special is still happening — act now to get 34% off a paid Power Plays subscription for a year, the best deal in PP history, and help this work continue.
BG IS FREE!
Hi, friends. I've never been so happy to write a newsletter
Today, we woke up to some of the best news ever: Brittney Griner is coming home.
Two hundred and ninety-four excruciating days after she was wrongfully detained at a Moscow airport while returning to the country to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, Griner is free.
I did an in-depth explainer on Griner’s wrongful imprisonment in the fall, but to quickly recap: Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on August 4, on charges of drug possession and smuggling, all over allegations that she brought a vape cartridge into the country. Her nine-year sentence was “unprecedentedly harsh,” even in Russia. From the beginning, Russia treated Griner as a political prisoner, and the United States government has been negotiating for her release for months upon months.
Last month, concern over her safety and well-being escalated when she was transferred from a Moscow jail to a penal colony in Mordovia, where conditions were reportedly much harsher.
But on Thursday, the Biden administration confirmed it had negotiated a one-for-one prisoner exchange with Russia, swapping Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. For Griner and her family, the nightmare is over.
It is a day to celebrate. But it is also a day that stirs up many good-faith questions AND bad-faith attacks from people in this country who hate everything that Griner— a Black, gay, outspoken, successful, strong woman — stands for.
We will not let those bad-faith actors dull the shine of this day. But I do think it’s important to address a few things: Why the United States exchanged Bout, why American Paul Whelan wasn’t included in the trade, and what comes next.
(Plus: Celebratory tweets.)
Why was President Biden okay with releasing Viktor Bout?
While many people are very disingenuously wielding this question as a knock against Griner’s freedom, I do think it is a legitimate question to ask, because prisoner exchanges with an authoritarian regime are extremely scary and complicated and obfuscated by design.
So, to answer, I’m going to repurpose some of what I wrote in September:
Viktor Bout is a Russian arms trafficker accused of selling weapons to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, among other militant groups. He was arrested by U.S. authorities in Bangkok in 2008, extradited to the United States in 2010, convicted in 2011, and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012.
He is an infamously dangerous man. His story inspired the 2005 Nicholas Cage film, “Lord of War,” and his nickname is “the merchant of death.”
It is very understandable if the thought of swapping Griner — who allegedly had less than one gram of hashish oil in her bag when detained in Russia — with a guy nicknamed “the merchant of death” makes you uncomfortable. It is, in no way, a “fair” trade. But a “fair” trade would require two good-faith actors. And that is not the reality of negotiating with Putin.
The truth is, Putin has been angry about Bout’s arrest and conviction since it went down, and has long wanted to get Bout back. With Griner in custody, he sensed an opportunity to make that happen.
I highly recommend listening to an episode of Vox’s Today Explained podcast featuring a conversation with Douglas Farah, the co-author of a biography on Bout, “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.”
Farah noted that Bout has already served about half of his sentence and could be up for parole in a few years anyways, and because of his age and the way the world has changed since he’s been imprisoned, it’s highly unlikely he returns to his violence-enabling ways.
“I do think that [Bout] is not in a position to wreak a lot more havoc in his life,” Farah said. “And I think Brittney Griner is in significant danger in Russia because of her sexual orientation, because of who she is, and because of the prize that the Russians have in her. That is worth the trade at this point to bring her back.”
Why didn’t Biden get Paul Whelan out in the deal?
When Griner was arrested in February, she became one of three Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, along with former Marines Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan. On April 27, the United States exchanged Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of cocaine smuggling, for Reed, who had been held captive in Russia since 2019 for alleged violence against a Russian police officer. Reed’s freedom was a high priority because his health was rapidly declining.
That left two Americans wrongfully detained in Russia: Griner and Whelan, who has been held in Russia on espionage charges since 2018 and is about to enter his fourth year of a 16-year sentence.
For many — myself included — when the news broke on Thursday morning, the excitement about Griner’s freedom was followed instantly by the devastation that this was a one-for-one exchange.
Biden Administration officials confirmed over the summer that they had offered Whelan and Griner in exchange for Bout. But, unfortunately, Whelan remains in a Russian penal colony.
The Biden Administration stressed that it tried to get Whelan released as well, but that Russia did not show any willingness to comply.
“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none,” a US senior administration official told CNN Thursday morning.
T.J. Quinn, an ESPN journalist who has been at the forefront of this story since March, reports that Russia considers Whelan to be a “different ‘class’ of prisoner than Griner because of his espionage conviction.”
This is something that Whelan himself confirmed on Thursday. Talking to CNN from his Russian penal colony, Whelan said that he’d been told that because Russia considers him a spy, “they’ve put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney.” He added: “That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. And they’re trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion.”
While Whelan’s frustration is completely understandable, it is important to remember that Russia loves to sow discord among American citizens and exploit all of our divisions around race, gender, class, and sexuality.
Quinn pointed out that Russia likely permitted Whelan to make the phone call to CNN explicitly with the hope it would stoke backlash against Biden for not getting Whelan out.
What is next for Griner and Whelan?
Griner is currently on a plane on her way to the United States. She is expected to arrive at a military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas, either late Thursday night or early Friday morning, where she will meet her family and receive a medical evaluation.
As Quinn notes, she is now free to decide for herself what comes next.
I hope that media and fans give her and her family all the privacy they ask for, so they can spend their holidays in peace and safety and togetherness, and begin the process of healing from all of the trauma. Any questions about her future, on or off the court, can wait. She doesn’t owe the public any answers.
But while I refuse to speculate on most of Griner’s next steps, knowing her commitment to advocacy and knowing how close her wife, Cherelle Griner, has grown with the family members of other wrongfully detained Americans over the past 10 months, I feel confident in saying that Griner and her family won’t let Whelan’s fight for freedom be forgotten.
Cherelle Griner said as much in her speech at the White House this morning, and the WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) confirmed its continued involvement in the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign” as well.
Through their heartbreak over Whelan’s continued detainment, the Whelan family has shown nothing but grace and support for Griner.
In a statement released to media, Paul Whalen’s twin brother David said: “I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
Later, he emphasized, “It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom.”
But I do want to finish this by including the last two paragraphs of David Whelan’s statement to the press today.
It will be the fourth Christmas Mum and Dad live through without Paul. They will eb 85 and 83 on the fourth anniversary of his detention (12/18/2022). Time is Paul’s, and our, enemy. The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues. Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won’t survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony. He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure.
“I am not sure if it’s appropriate to ask and I’ve avoided it in the past, but if you can include a link to Paul’s GoFundMe in your coverage, I’d be grateful. It would be a way to help us continue to support him in the years to come. The money goes into a trust that is used solely to support him in prison.
We can (and we must) weep tears of joy for Griner and tears of sorrow for Whelan; we can (and we must) celebrate tonight and fight tomorrow. Empathy and social justice are not zero-sum games.
Finally, here is a roundup of tweets from WNBA players celebrating Griner’s freedom!!!!!
Welcome home, BG!!!!!