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Photo: Brittney Griner/Lorie Shaull
It’s no secret that women’s sports don’t hit the mainstream news the same way men’s leagues do. Well-known players, in this case, NBA players, are well known regardless if you’ve ever seen a game. They have recognizable names and significant public notoriety. The same can’t be said for many women’s leagues. Even many die-hard basketball fans wouldn’t be able to name a single WNBA player. And this lack of public recognition has become increasingly obvious in recent months.
Brittney Griner, seven-time All-Star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Olympic gold medalist, has been detained in Russia for months. She has limited access to communication, limited ability to advocate for herself, and, most noticeably, limited public support.
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Brittney Griner – What Exactly Happened?
In February of this year, Griner was traveling into Russia. This isn’t unusual as Griner has previously played for an international team in Russia during the WNBA off-season, as many players in the NBA and WNBA alike do. The problem arose in an airport near Moscow when she was stopped, as her luggage contained vape cartridges with hashish oil, a cannabis concentrate. Tensions between the United States and Russia were at an all-time high (at least since the Cold War), likely contributing to the swift action taken.
Griner was taken into custody and remained there for months. Her only form of communication was email, which was limited to the point of Griner periodically receiving printed copies of emails to which she needed to dictate replies to. There was no certain future for Griner, but many talks centered around a large-scale drug transportation charge, which could land Griner in a Russian prison for ten years.
What Did People Do?
When the news broke about Griner’s detainment, most heads turned to the NBA. There’s a handful of reasons why we’d expect action from the NBA, even though Griner is a WNBA player. For one, the NBA founded the WNBA and still owns about half of the league. Also, the NBA hasn’t shied away from tackling social issues in the past, notably tying itself closely to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Last, it’s no surprise that the NBA has more influence than the WNBA; more funds, more outreach, all the way down to more teams and more players. In all, the NBA was simply capable of more. So, what did they do?
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like they did quite a lot. We can’t blame the league entirely; we’ll dig more into the fact that this was a highly political move, one that cannot be handled without the US government. The commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, made a statement saying that the NBA as a whole, as well as each individual team, is working on getting Griner home, but that was mostly out of the public eye. The most vocal individuals were the players. NBA players are constantly speaking to the press, before, after, and during games, between practices, and just about any other time they’re near a microphone, and many of them took this opportunity to raise awareness for Griner’s situation.
The timing meant that Griner’s situation was spiraling out of hand (time ticking on and on without Griner returning home or any further action taking place) just as the NBA postseason started. This meant more media attention and a larger platform that many of the players took advantage of. When the Boston Celtics made the NBA Finals, two players in particular, Grant Williams and Jaylen Brown, welcomed the additional spotlight as they both serve on the NBA Players’ Association board. If you took a sample size of just NBA players, it’d seem like everyone was talking about getting Griner home, but that wasn’t at all the case.
The Case for Bringing Her Home
When you look at all the facts laid out, this seems like the exact situation that would get public outcry. Griner had a prescription for the drugs she was being held for, and even then her lawyers stated that they were brought to Russia by mistake. Coming from a place where cannabis is legal and holding a prescription for the oil is solid evidence that this was not an ill-intended drug crime as her arrest made it out to be.
Then there’s the fact that Griner is a public figure and was arrested in a time of high tensions between the United States and Russia. In May, the US State Department stated that Griner was wrongfully detained. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, spoke to President Biden and Vice President Harris regarding Griner’s detainment, further proving that this is a matter bigger than a simple drug charge. This is a political statement, and one that Griner had no reason to be wrapped up in.
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Why Aren’t People Talking about This?
There are a number of biases that people hold that can, intentionally or unintentionally, inform how they react to a situation like this. A portion of people, upon hearing about Griner, decide that the punishment fits the crime and she deserves what she’s getting. Now, this is likely a result of racism, but in Griner’s case, it could be rooted in sexism or homophobia as well. Many people dismiss her case with a shrug and a belief that if she didn’t break the law she wouldn’t be facing legal action. And, yes, this is true, but this is only a surface-level evaluation. This is a political move, one that transcends airport security and moves onto some of the world’s most powerful desks. Accidentally bringing a prescribed but illegal substance in your carry-on does not equate to six months of detainment. If this isn’t an issue that bothers you, take a moment to consider why not.
By Lara Glennon
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Lara Glennon is an aspiring screenwriter looking to share her love and passion for all things film and television. She aims to use her writing to shine a light on artists who are working to make change, both in media and in the world. The Hollywood Insider’s focus on substance over gossip is perfect for Lara, as she wants to highlight the good in the world and those who create it. She enjoys spending her time creating and consuming art, searching for unique voices and ideas in media.