The Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner is one of the most dominant basketball players in the history of the game. Standing at a jaw-dropping 6’9,” consistently leading the WNBA in blocks, and tallying 23 career dunks the two-time Olympian is a force to be reckoned with. But recently, Griner’s name has been making a splash for other reasons.
On February 17th, the Russian government detained Griner on bogus drug smuggling allegations after the Russian Federal Customs Service allegedly discovered cannabis oil in her carry-on suitcase.
But why was Griner flying to Russia in the first place?
Chronic underpayment of WNBA athletes has led even the biggest stars to seek contracts in foreign countries during the offseason. Griner was in the airport on her way to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she reportedly makes over $1.5 million annually versus the maximum contract of $227,900 that she signed for this upcoming WNBA season.
The state of current global politics indicates that Griner’s detention is no coincidence. Oftentimes, authoritarian regimes take innocent prisoners to use as a bargaining chip and to make a statement about their geopolitical and ideological power. High political tensions between the U.S. and Russia surrounding Russia’s propaganda-fueled invasion of Ukraine suggest that Griner’s imprisonment is the collateral damage of a broader Russian power-grab.
Griner’s imprisonment is a thinly veiled threat against what the U.S. and Griner represent—the ability to express personal freedoms.
It is not only Griner’s American passport that makes her a target of the Russian government. Brittney Griner is a proud queer, Black woman. These multiple marginalized identities render her a perfect target for Vladamir Putin’s authoritarian regime to make an example out of and to display the power that lies in his backward stance on identity freedoms.
The U.S.—a country that prides itself on freedom—should capitalize on this opportunity to defend the central tenants of liberty that Griner embodies through her identities. Outward recognition of these complex factors that contribute to Griner’s status would not only open conversations that would help ensure her safety but would defend those with marginalized identities from further oppression imposed by authoritarianism globally. Instead, the U.S’s silence speaks volumes and allows Russia to carry out its oppressive terrorist scheme.
Little has been shared with the public about Griner’s well-being in detention, leaving onlookers to fear for the athlete’s safety. Over a month after the news of Griner’s situation broke, it is now known to the public that Griner’s family and legal team have been in frequent contact with her, prioritizing her mental and physical health.
Still, Griner’s advocates have taken a conservative approach to publicizing the crisis. Their logic is that raising the case’s profile would entangle the rescue with the U.S’s complicated intervention into the Russia-Ukraine crisis, unnecessarily politicizing release negotiations. They fear that public intervention in the situation could exacerbate the already-elevated diplomatic tensions between Russia and the U.S. The problem is, there is no way to depoliticize this situation. Russia’s motive was clear: Griner’s imprisonment is undeniably political, whether the U.S. chooses to publicly acknowledge it or not.
Since the league's founding, WNBA players have been at the forefront of political activism. Countless players have faced public ridicule, legal backlash, and steep fines for using their platform to condemn injustice. Brittney Griner is a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ and Black liberation. She is no stranger to using her platform to fight for justice. Griner’s voice is one of the WNBA’s loudest when addressing issues of equality and representation. A conservative approach to Griner’s rescue mission may not only jeopardize her release but fundamentally undercuts Griner’s activist brand—one of high visibility and intense pressure on the political system.
If the athlete in detention was an exceptional NBA star, such as Steph Curry, I posit that the publicization of this crisis would look vastly different. Stories and infographics would sweep the internet and Steph Curry’s name would be at the forefront of public discourse. The disparity of public attention on these two athletes is evident even through the two stars’ Instagram follower count, with Curry’s totaling a figure over 100 times that of Griner. Such disparities display how Griner’s identity, in this example, her gender, plays into the current crisis. If this tragedy had targeted a highly-acclaimed NBA player, I am sure that public outcry would be uncontainable and would intensify pressure placed on the State Department to swiftly address the crisis and bring the athlete home.
When I examine Griner’s situation through an intersectional lens, it is clear that this tragedy is a result of Putin’s attempt to make an example out of Griner’s identity. As Putin falters in his inhumane attacks on Ukraine, his hyper-masculine power complex is threatened, rendering even the most vulnerable a perceived risk to his dominance. Brittney Griner’s identity as a proud Black, queer woman is an unequivocal threat to Putin’s scheme. Attempting to depoliticize this fundamentally political situation ignores the central motivation of Putin’s terrorism.
The U.S. government is faltering its opportunity to say out loud what Russia isn’t—Brittney Griner’s captivity is an act of terrorism. If this narrative won’t come from the State Department, it has to come from the public. Get angry about this. Get loud.