I don’t know how your brain works, but I definitely know mine runs in a curious way. I’ve been hellaciously busy the past 2 months, juggling a ton of all-hands-on-deck type of projects at work and home. The comedy of it has been the all-hands claxon has only been for me. Stuff I had had to get done, alone, not because I was being a she-ro, but because it was solely my shit to slog through.
Anyways, enough whining. Stuff got done, dragons slayed, mental performance brainwaves locked, loaded and deployed.
Through all of this stuff a weird thought has popped into my head during the 3 ½ seconds I had to zone out: I wonder how Brittney Griner is doing in that Russian jail? Is she OK? What are they doing to her?
However, the unknown fate of Griner, who has been held by Russia since February, after being detained at the Moscow airport for allegedly possessing hashish oil vape cartridges, a banned narcotic substance. If convicted, she faces 10 years in prison. Griner, like many WNBA stars, plays in Russia during the WNBA off-season to rake in lucrative contracts.
Truthfully, I don’t regularly ponder the fate of Griner, the WNBA and Team USA Basketball superstar. I mean, I see the highlights, and I am like, cool, go play your ball.
She plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a kick-ass team in the Russian Women’s League and also part of the EuroLeague Women. WNBA stars Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley were her teammates in Russia. After the invasion of Ukraine, which started Feb. 24, the international players left their Russian clubs, the RWL was banned from the EuroLeague and basically all hell broke loose when players tried to get home.
The quiet working theory is Griner may have been either set up, or her “illegal” substances oversold, as the lever to take her into custody after the U.S. and its allies hit Russia with sanctions on Feb. 21.
Griner’s detention is concerning on many levels: she is a high-profile American. A well-known and elite athlete: one of only 11 women in the planet with an NCAA Championship (Baylor, 2012), Olympic gold medals (2016, 2020), WNBA title (Mercury, 2014), and a FIBA World Cup championship.
A 6-foot-9 black woman in a country not known for embracing diversity. An out lesbian who is married. And a high-value hostage for Russia to hold during the proxy shadow boxing in its war on Ukraine.
Her situation publicly trickled out in mid-March, as American news and sports outlets reported the details that had been held in secret. The WNBA/NBA and the State Department tried to work the quieter channels to get her out. The hope was the Russian legal system, whatever the hell it is for sham theater under Vladimir Putin, would work in Griner’s favor and she would be freed.
She’s not free.
We are now in May, the WNBA has started its regular season, and Griner is still imprisoned. Last week, the State Department changed her status to “wrongly detained”, meaning her case is now in the hands of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Let that sink in. Brittney Griner, an American, is being considered to be held hostage by Russia.
Or if you prefer the diplo-speak, “Held without Justification”.
The hope is for the U.S. Envoy, Roger Carstens, and other behind-the-scenes types can start opening different channels to get Griner out without a trial.
This is why Griner, 31, is on my mind. There are too many reasons to hurt her. I can’t imagine a Russian prison nor her keepers having any reasons to be kind. I’ve interviewed Griner a few times and had dinner with her, and she is a kind and thoughtful soul. Her court presence is dominating, thanks to her size and strength. Off the court, she is a fun and warm person. She loves what she does, and she is really good at it.
I don’t know how much Russian she understands/speaks. She has been playing for UMKC since 2014, so maybe she knows a little. But you just don’t pick up Russian on the fly. Russian authorities claim she is being held with two other English-speaking women in one cell, with all on drug offenses. According to the Russians, the hard part was finding a bed long enough for Griner’s frame.
Somehow I doubt a short bed is on the top of Griner’s inconvenience list right now.
A friend, last week, asked me who Griner was and why there was a big article in the New York Times about her. I know, it’s inconceivable, but I have non-sports-loving friends who have no idea who Griner is. It’s OK, I love you anyways. As I provided my eternal sportsball Siri service for the non-sportsy in my life, the question was dropped:
Why is she in Russia anyways? Why would Americans be playing basketball in Russia?
Oh yes. That was 100 percent perfect for this thought bomb. Why should American women, who play in the WNBA for want of playing at home and growing the game here, need to go over to Russia to hoop?
Kids, let’s do the math together. You can make around $228,000 in the WNBA if you are in the top-tier of players. Sue Bird, Griner, Taurasi, Jewell Lloyd, Elena Delle Donne all make the list. Yes, that is a nice sum of money. However, compared to the men (AND YES, I KNOW THE NBA IS A WHOLE DIFFERENCE ECONOMIC SCALE, SO PLEASE DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES. Just sayin’, to say...) Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and John Wall all took home more than $44 million - this season.
The guys are not needing to side-hustle in their off-season. The women who trek to Russia can pull down another $1-1.5 million for that season.
I think most of us would strongly consider - if not outright say hell yes - for a chance to do our jobs far from home, even for a few months and increase our yearly income 5-fold.
Playing in the Russian League is like going through the Looking Glass. You get the harsh weather of the Russian winter. Then surrounded by people using a language you can't read or understand. Simple things like going grocery shopping turn into an alien situation since everything is so different. The other players, according to the WNBA’ers I talked to, sometimes were resentful of having an American star drop in on the team. The U.S. players were more sophisticated on court and wanted to do things the others couldn’t pull off.
But the price for that awkwardness was often right. The trade off is a fat check, a luxurious, Western-style apartment, driver, cook, better travel conditions (plane, hotel) than in the WNBA, and a translator. And they get to play basketball. MAKE MONEY. One player said the owner showered the team with diamond earrings and a Cartier watch for winning the league.
So of course Griner was in Russia. She should get every damned dollar, ruble, Euro, and diamond on the table for her talents while her body still allows it.
But Griner's star status is also what makes me scared for her life. The cruel things that could be done to her body and spirit are too chilling to ponder. Breaking her, in any way, for the spite of it - cannot be discounted in this awful dilemma.
The next date to watch in this is May 19, a circle on the calendar from the Russian authorities. She was ordered held in arrest, back in March, until that Thursday - 11 days from now. It’s unclear if she goes back to court, or what happens. This isn’t a neat Law and Order episode where Benson and Stabler swoop in to save the day.
This is real. Maybe now I will have you thinking a random thought about Griner too. I want her home, safe, and if she feels like it - playing basketball someday soon again.
Until all those things come to pass, we can only send her love and positive vibes to survive this.
See you Friday!
Open Court publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays, bringing you the stuff we need to talk about with author and sports journalist Joanne C. Gerstner.
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