The Lack of Attention on Brittney Griner Could Be a Matter of Life or Death

If Brittney Griner’s name rhymed with Teph Furry, this would be a completely different article. 

It’s been almost two months since Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia, according to CNN, and there’s still no word on how she’s doing now. The WNBA star was detained in Moscow when a customs dog at Sheremetyevo International Airport indicated Griner had drugs in her carry-on. If convicted, the two-time Olympic medalist could face up to 10 years in prison. 

The timing couldn’t be worse as the western countries are in an escalating geopolitical conflict with Russia. Fears mount that 31-year old Griner could be used as a pawn in Putin’s war with Ukraine, among other dangers. 

Griner's detention behind enemy lines is yet another example of how the U.S.'s War on Drugs puts citizens around the world in a very scary position. The seeming indifference of U.S. media and activists underscores how and why people like Griner -- black, queer, women -- are especially at risk.

Why Is a WNBA Player In Russia At All? 

While it feels petty to lean on the NBA/WNBA comparison, the reality is an NBA player would probably never be in this situation. Many women basketball players feel the need to play off-season overseas because they make three times their base WNBA salary. Add to that the pressures of performing in a country whose citizens hardly look like you, the trip could be physically and mentally trying.

It makes sense why a Black, openly queer athlete would resort to cannabis use, if she did. Since weed isn’t federally legal, research is slowly coming out about its effects, thanks to cultural and societal shifts. According to the National Library of Medicine, cannabis use is not performance enhancing, mentioning “ The potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention.

As a player who suffered a retina injury, a broken wrist from a freak longboarding accident, a leg injury by way of a rolled ankle, and who needs to play all year ‘round to just make a living, Griner would greatly benefit from the cannabinoids.

Evidence shows the power of self-medication; that line is vague enough to not trigger compliance.

U.S. Drug War Continues Around the World 

It’s important to note that in Russia, cannabis is illegal, even for medical purposes, this is in part thanks to the drug war fueled by the U.S. The global campaign put illicit substance control at the top of the U.S. domestic and foreign policy agendas through military intervention, military aid, and prohibition towards the end of the 20th century.

To communities of color all over the world, this form of imperialism proves dangerous and even deadly, as officers are trained to use aggressive tactics towards civilians. 

Around the world the drug war is destabilizing poorer countries where drugs are produced and trafficked to wealthier nations like the U.S. The drug market in those countries finances criminal groups' violent actions, as some cartels grow so powerful they even conquer cities. 

With the U.S. mid-opioid epidemic, it may be time to reinvest militarized police funding in rehabilitation rather than aggressive punitive action. 

Russia Has Done This Before 

Griner’s use as a pawn is a legitimate fear; Russia has attempted to use prisoners as leverage before. In June 2020, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage, was used to negotiate for the release of two Russians serving lengthy sentences in the U.S. One of the prisoners, Yareshenko, was charged with smuggling cocaine – a clear indication that this is about politics, not drugs. 

Trades worked in the past, like in the case of Nick Daniloff, an American journalist who was detained in the USSR in 1986. He’s expressed concerns that Griner is being held in an isolation prison like he was. Daniloff reported that his roommate in prison was an informant, something many feared would happen to Griner. 

For Daniloff, a negotiation resulted in the release of a Russian national arrested in New York for espionage. He thanked President Reagan for taking a special interest in his case. Will Biden get involved this time? Or will his indifference to cannabis reform cloud his judgment?

Get Involved In the Free Brittney Griner Movement 

In a clip of the "I Am Athlete" podcast teasing Monday’s 3/28’s episode, basketball legend Lisa Leslie states (through hearsay) that the WNBA was told “to not make a big fuss about it so they could not use [Griner], so to speak, in this situation in war.” While this is the alleged directive, Leslie had mixed emotions about saying nothing. On minimizing the #FreeBrittney movement Leslie shared, “Do we know if that’s the right thing to do, or not? It’s heartbreaking.” 

Attempts to secure Griner’s release from Russian detainment are underway. Fellow Baylor alumni and US Congressman Rep Colin Allred said earlier in March, ”I know the administration is working hard to try and get access to her…We don't have a lot of insight into where she is in that process right now but she's been held for three weeks now, and that's extremely concerning.”

According to Aljazeera, a court outside of Moscow extended Griner’s detention to May 19th, as the Russians continue their investigation. 

Sports journalist Tamryn Spruill started a petition to secure Griner’s release. In her heartfelt plea, Spruill points out that “Black women, from missing persons to victims of crime are not treated with the same urgency as white women and other groups.” 

The petition also contains an extensive list of government officials including members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee you can contact directly. You can read and sign the petition here