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The terrifying unknowns of Brittney Griner’s detainment
Last Saturday, the New York Times broke the news that WNBA star Brittney Griner is currently being detained in Russia. We still know very little about her circumstances, other than the fact that authorities at an airport outside of Moscow arrested her after allegedly finding cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage on February 17.
She was traveling to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team she has played for during the WNBA offseason since 2016. (In the WNBA, Griner earned a base salary of $221,000 last season, which is close to the league’s max salary. In Russia, she likely earns well over $1 million.)
I, like most of us, have been overwhelmed by feelings of terror, confusion, and helplessness since the story came to light.
I’ve also had no clue how to cover it. My initial response, of course, was to scream from the rooftops — or whatever the newsletter equivalent is — and demand justice. I have wanted to yell at everyone, from the WNBA front office to the Phoenix Mercury front office, from USA Basketball headquarters to Joe Biden himself, and use whatever modicum of a platform I’ve built to publicly hold their feet to the fire and rally the community to Griner’s aid.
After all, it’s easy to interpret the weeks of silence over Griner’s detainment by the Powers That Be as apathy; as yet another example of our leaders letting a Black, queer woman fall through the cracks.
But while there’s certainly some truth to that, this situation is far more complex and perilous than any I’ve covered in the past. The Russian legal system is notoriously opaque. The only reason we know about Griner’s detainment is because of Russian media reports, which should give us all pause. And the fact that this is all taking place while Russia is invading Ukraine and the U.S. is enacting stifling sanctions on Russia? Well, it’s unfathomably horrifying.
Ultimately, there are extremely understandable and valid reasons why those around her — from her agent to her teammates to her family to officials at the WNBA, WNBA Players Association, and USA Basketball — were not the ones bringing this story to the attention of the media.
As Dave Sheinin wrote at The Washington Post, the silence isn’t a sign of indifference, it’s a tactic:
Griner’s family, her agents, officials from the WNBA and the Phoenix Mercury and top U.S. government officials have been mostly silent about her situation — a stance that, according to experts on Russian American relations and people familiar with the case, is a strategic one, likely being dictated by a crisis communications firm. A high-profile media campaign for her release, the thinking goes, would only make her situation worse by adding value to her in the eyes of the Russian authorities.
Mechelle Voepel and T.J. Quinn echo this sentiment in an extremely measured and informative breakdown of the entire story at ESPN, explaining why we’re not seeing a flood of calls for Griner’s freedom by the WNBA community at large:
The players are aware how perilous Griner's position could be, and they realize the people closest to her had been trying to work out the situation before it became public. The WNBA players are a close-knit group, and most have a lot of experience with international travel and living abroad. But this is a frightening situation for all of them. No one wants to publicly say anything they think could jeopardize efforts to help her. That's also true for the league's coaches, agents and the WNBA itself.
All week I’ve been somewhat paralyzed trying to figure out what to do. On one hand, how in the world is it possible to think about or write about anything other than the fact that one of the biggest women’s basketball stars on the planet is detained in a country that is actively at war and there is no information about when she will be set free? But on the other hand, is drawing attention to the situation ultimately doing more harm than good?
So here I am, addressing it, holding space for Griner and her struggles, and trying to accept that this is a time when our typical ways of responding to a crisis in women’s sports aren’t called for. I have no hot takes or declarative statements to share; there are few facts and a plethora of terror-fueled speculations, and I’m doing my best to keep the two categories separate. I don’t know whether the hashish oil was planted in her luggage or whether she actually did travel with it herself. I know that the fact that she’s Black and queer puts her in more danger, especially in Russia, but I don’t know for certain how anyone would handle this particular story if she was male or white or straight. There are no exact playbooks here, no perfect comparisons, no hypotheticals that bring us any closer to Griner’s freedom.
I know that, as Alex Simon reported at The Next, Griner didn’t want to go overseas this season, but did it because the money is too good to turn down; but I don’t know if this will change the calculus for WNBA players going overseas in the future. In fact, I doubt it will.
It’s an excruciating situation, one that begs for restraint and patience, while innately inciting exactly the opposite. Going forward here at Power Plays, I’ll include any updates in the Friday Five, but will otherwise follow the lead of Griner’s family, friends, agent, and the WNBPA, in terms of the tone and tenor of the response.
In the meantime, I highly recommend that you read the ESPN and Washington Post articles I linked above for more detailed information, and check out this informative piece from Shauntel Lowe at the New York Times on why so many WBA stars play overseas. Also, the latest Spinsters podcast with Jordan Ligons and Haley O’Shaughnessy is a must-listen; it features interviews with William Butler, a Russian legal specialist and Professor of Law at Penn State Dickinson Law, and Dr. Courtney Cox, an assistant professor in the Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies department at Oregon, about Griner, Russian law, and what life is like for WNBA players overseas.
We love you Brittney Griner, are holding space for you in our hearts and minds, and hope you’re home very, very soon.
#FromTheArchives: Brittney Griner through the years
I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the phenomenal Brittney Griner moments we’ve been able to experience over her long career. (Which is not over, of course!!) I know some of my readers only started to follow women’s basketball in recent years, and might not be familiar with just how game-changing of a force Griner truly is and always has been.
For a comprehensive overview of her career and significance, I also suggest you read a piece from the New York Times that was published this week entitled, “Brittney Griner’s impact is clear as WNBA fans await word from Russia.”
March 11, 2009; Telegraph-Form; “Prep star slams it like no other woman”
Griner was an absolute high-school basketball sensation. Here’s an Associated Press feature on her dunking abilities, which didn’t age perfectly but does give a great sense of just how huge of a star she was long before she turned pro.
April 5, 2010; New York Times; “Brittney Griner, Basketball Star, Helps Redefine Beauty”
As you can see from the above article, Griner has been under intense scrutiny since she was very young thanks to her talents; but she’s also been in the spotlight because of her looks. After her sensational freshman year at Baylor, when she led her team to the Final Four, Guy Trebay wrote for the New York Times about how she was helping redefine beauty standards merely by existing and thriving. Like the article above, it didn’t age perfectly, but I think it’s an important look at how central she has been to cultural conversations since she was a teenager.
Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
“Brittney Griner is such an athlete, and so gifted, you almost don’t notice that she is part of a slowly unfolding, civilized response in this country to the slightly androgynous female,” said Terry Castle, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a passionate fan of women’s basketball. “She calls our attention to the unnecessary rigidity of sex roles and makes a number of feminist points along the way.”
Over the last three decades, Dr. Castle added, “There’s been increased visual and possibly social tolerance, especially in the realm of women’s sports, of individuals who could reasonably be called androgynous.”
May 3, 2013; New York Times; “Griner Says She Is Part of Mission to Help All Live in Truth”
Once again, Griner’s impact on the world has gone far beyond the basketball court. In 2013, before the WNBA draft, Griner came out as gay publicly. This was extremely rare at the time; in many ways she helped bring about the current culture of the WNBA, which is far more friendly to the LGBTQ community than it ever has been in the past.
Here are some excerpts from an essay she wrote for the New York Times about coming out, her struggles growing up, and how she hopes to inspire others.
Just as basketball doesn’t define who I am, neither does being gay.
But that doesn’t mean life was easy growing up. I was bullied in every way imaginable, but the worst was the verbal abuse. (I was always a strong, tough and tall girl, so nobody wanted to mess with me from a physical standpoint.) It hit rock bottom when I was in seventh grade. I was in a new school with people I didn’t know, and the teasing about my height, appearance and sexuality went on nonstop, every day.
People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman. Some even wanted me to prove it to them. During high school and college, when we traveled for games, people would shout the same things while also using racial epithets and terrible homophobic slurs.
Still, some people have it worse. I think about what Matthew Shepard had to face when he was tortured and chained to a fence in 1998 — I am thankful that Jason, as a veteran professional athlete, took the opportunity to remind people so that it never happens again. I think about that often, but I also think about the kids in middle school and high school today who daily are made to feel so bad about themselves that they contemplate not wanting to live anymore. That really hurts my heart because I’ve been there.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out exactly where I fit. During that journey, I realized that everyone has a unique place in this world. I also discovered that the more open I was with my family and friends, the more I embraced others, and the more committed I became to doing the things I love, like basketball, skating and, of course, eating bacon (the greatest food of all time), the more love and confidence I received in return.
I just had to hang in there and be myself.
This is the best comprehensive look at Griner