WNBA should watch Griner’s detention

Brittany Griner’s nine-year drug-related sentencing was upheld during a recent appeal. The sentence is harsher than average, and the U.S. is considering a prisoner exchange. // Photo courtesy of Natalia Kolesnikova Getty

During the opening night of the 2022-23 NBA season on Oct. 18, the Golden State Warriors received their championship rings from last season — but Stephen Curry had more than basketball on his mind. The superstar point guard pleaded with the nation to keep thinking about Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been imprisoned in Russia since February of 2022. 

“Brittney Griner’s birthday is today. She’s 32 years old. … we hope she comes home soon,” Curry said. 

It proved timely — a week later, Griner’s nine-year prison sentence was upheld and her detention continues with no end in sight. To free her, the Biden administration needs a solution that results in the freedom of Griner and other trapped citizens without further damaging a fraught U.S.-Russia relationship. 

While traveling to Russia in February of 2022, Griner, who also plays overseas for UMMC Ekaterinburg, was detained after airport officials allegedly found electronic cigarette cartridges with cannabis oil. Per Article 228 of the Russian Criminal

Code, Griner was charged with drug trafficking/smuggling and taken into custody. This statue is known as “the people’s statute” because over a quarter of Russian prisoners are imprisoned under this single statute.

The official announcement of detention came from Russian customs two weeks later on March 5. It took another two weeks for U.S. officials to contact her, but access was tightly restricted by Russian authorities. 

Her detention continued until her trial in July of 2022, where she pled guilty to the charges but claimed that she accidentally brought a small amount of the oil for medicinal usage. The trial continued through early August, concluding with the judge sentencing Griner to a nine-year sentence and a fine of 1 million rubles (approximately $16,700). Her defense attorney appealed the sentence, meaning that Griner would stay in detention until the October appeal. 

The appeal before Russian judges did not get Griner any closer to freedom, but it revealed more about a defendant locked away from the outside world. In her hearing, Griner begged the court to adjust her sentence because of the traumatic impact on her mental health — to no avail. After the denial of her appeal, those feelings have rightfully magnified with her lawyers telling journalists that Griner feels “doomed.”

Griner is a foreigner in a country with one of the most conservative drug policies in the world, seeing as how it is illegal to promote or even encourage drug use. Furthermore, Griner admitted to possessing the cartridges, but also submitted documents validating their medical usage as pain relievers. Unfortunately, the Russian courts were not interested in the oil’s medicinal applications. 

The cartridges contained 0.04 ounces of hashish oil, an amount smaller than a paperclip, but Russian prosecutors are calling for nearly the maximum ten-year sentence permitted for drug trafficking. Per Griner’s Russian lawyers, similar cases received an average sentence of five years with a third of the cases being granted parole. What is different about Griner’s case?

It is clear that Moscow sees Griner’s detention as an opportunity. A summer offer of

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a prisoner exchange for Griner and fellow jailed American, Paul Whelan, was reportedly offered to Moscow, but Russia opted to wait for the result of Griner’s appeal. The U.S. offering Bout is significant because he has gone through American prosecution for conspiracy to kill Americans and terrorist activities. However, U.S. officials are concerned that the exchange of Griner and Whelan for Bout would equate a serious terrorism conviction with what the American government considers a sham trial process. It might also create motivation for American citizens to be targeted abroad by foreign governments. 

Now that Griner’s appeal is done, it is possible a deal could be reached if Griner does not  contest the charges further. Even though the offer was not acted upon in June, Russia is still reportedly interested in Bout being freed. But public advocacy efforts from Griner’s friends and family have put more pressure on the Kremlin and complicated the exchange process since the increased attention could result in an adverse response from Russia. 

Barring a breakthrough in negotiations, the next notable opportunity for significant headway to be made is the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. President Biden will have an opportunity to speak directly to President Putin on Griner’s behalf. In the meantime, Griner and her supporters will have to wait for a diplomatic solution to break through the hostility and secure her freedom. For the sake of the human being involved, let us hope a solution arrives soon. 

However, the reason why Griner was in Russia in the first place should not be ignored. She is one of the biggest names associated with the WNBA, yet that counts for little in terms of her earnings. Due to a lack of domestic interest in the league, the maximum salary for WNBA players is around $230,000 while international leagues can pay nearly $1 million per season. Both figures pale in comparison to the salary of NBA players, who do not need to play in multiple leagues to support themselves. If the practice of playing in multiple leagues is to continue, the WNBA needs to educate its players about the risks associated.

The WNBA and NBA need to explore new ways of marketing its players and generating more interest in the league so that its future players do not experience these situations. While it is critical to acknowledge the role of sexism in this disparity, the league recently received $75 million from investors in February of 2022. If the league is serious about “redefining women’s basketball for a new generation,” they need to effectively invest that sum into ensuring Griner’s case is the last one of its kind.