On Thursday, July 7, WNBA athlete Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges, telling a judge that she had done so “inadvertently” while asking the court for mercy. If convicted, Griner faces up to 10 years in prison. Sources said the guilty plea indicates that there may be a strategy in place to facilitate a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia, which would expedite her return (ESPN). The incident highlights the unfair treatment of a Black, queer athlete amid growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
Back in February, Griner was detained in a Russian airport after authorities alleged they found vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage. Since then, the seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist has been awaiting trial (The Athletic). Griner was detained by Russian officials a week before the country invaded Ukraine. But Russian officials didn’t notify the U.S. that she had been detained until after the war began, which prompted officials to fear that she’d be leveraged as a bargaining chip as the crisis unfolded. (NYTimes). In May, the U.S. declared that Griner was “wrongfully detained” (ESPN).
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Initially, family and friends of Griner were recommended by the state to stay quiet about the case, worried that increased media attention would make Russia feel as if they had more leverage. But as the months progressed without any update on Griner’s wellbeing, or a trial date, more people are calling for change. Dozens of organizations, including the NAACP and GLAAD, have signed a letter pleading for more support (CNN). Earlier this month, Brittney Griner penned a letter to President Biden urging them to take action to protect her and other American detainees in Russia (Axios).
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever”… “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees.”
Prisoner swaps involve the trade of two or more people back to their homelands after committing a crime abroad. These power plays are used in diplomatic processes to establish faith in international relationships (Time). Prisoner swaps between the two countries aren’t unusual. In April, the Biden administration unexpectedly swapped Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed in 2011, for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was serving nine years after being convicted in Russia in 2020 (Bloomberg).
Critics have noted that if Griner were a male (especially a white male) athlete, more would have been done to protect her. And that’s likely true, regardless of the sensitivities around the case. But it’s important to note that if she were a male athlete, she likely wouldn’t have been in Russia in the first place.
Like many other athletes playing for women’s teams, Griner is paid far less than her male counterparts. Playing abroad during the off-season is the only option for supplementing their income through their careers (NPR). It’s a sad reminder of how the gender pay gap persists in exposing women and nonbinary people to unsafe working conditions – not just at the celebrity level but for low-wage workers, too (CNBC).
In 2021, women earned just 83.1% or 16.9 cents on the dollar of what men made. Factoring in race, the full-time earnings of Hispanic women were 58.4%, 63.1% for Black women, and 79.6% for white women compared to the earnings of white men (Institute for Women’s Policy Research).
Griner is also queer, and the lack of public support around her case may also be attributed to the ongoing discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face, especially in the sports industry (The Conversation). Nationwide, lawmakers are actively targeting and barring trans athletes from participating in school sports that align with their gender identity, effectively leading to the invalidation of their identities and isolation (Transgender Law Center). In 2020, the ACLU joined the Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools case, defending Black trans student-athletes Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, who were barred from competing on their high school track teams (ACLU).
Griner’s lawyer expects the case to last another two months, and many hope the Biden administration will step in to ensure her safe return home (NYTimes). In the meantime, we can rally to drive attention to her story. And let’s not forget that this isn’t a one-off event but indicative of an inequitable carceral system. And as Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard stated, our nation’s response will underscore how we value Black, queer women in America. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
• Yesterday, seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner pled guilty to drug charges after being detained in Russia.
• The controversy surrounding her case reflects the discrimination that women and LGBTQ+ athletes experience at all levels of success.