For the past two months, people around Brittney Griner and the WNBA have been quiet. The idea was that any loud call to have the basketball star released from her Russian prison when Vladimir Putin launched an attack on Ukraine would only disturb the authoritarian, and therefore the wise course was to work quietly behind the scenes to release her.
It has not worked.
Accused of having cannabis oil in his luggage at the airport on February 17, Griner risks 10 years in prison in Russia. However, her detention also serves as an undeniable flex of Putin’s power. The American and the Olympian incarnate many characteristics that he has tried to suppress in Russia, such as any discussion of unconventional gender expectations.
Laughing, which came out in 2013 and has often talked about how misunderstood she has felt over the years, stands at 6-foot-9 and has a number of recommendations, including Nike. She is impossible to ignore even if she would be invisible. She is too famous, too tall, too unique Laughing to be mistaken.
“This is an unimaginable situation for BG to be in,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Monday. as reported by ESPN, who has made excellent reporting on this story. “She continues to have our full support. Certainly, we try everything we can, all angles, and work with her legal representation, her agent, elected leaders, the administration. Just everyone in our ecosystem to try to find ways to get her home safely and as fast as we can. “
How independent is the judicial system in Russia? Putin’s leading opposition candidate Alexei Navalny is in jail again after being convicted of embezzlement in trials declared by international watchdogs to be flawed, and Amnesty International has ruled that Navalny is a prisoner of conscience. He was poisoned with the neurotoxin Novichuk in 2020, which resulted in Western governments imposing sanctions on Russia.
Navalny was recently sentenced to several years in prison.
This is a government that has no problem making an example of a popular figure, and those who work to liberate Griner are very aware of that. But at some point, one has to admit that quiet diplomacy has not been effective, and finally, earlier this week, several in Griner’s inner circle spoke out clearly about Griner’s situation.
Many women’s basketball players spend their free season abroad. They play in Israel, Turkey, China, Italy and Russia, and often in many different countries during a career. The money is good, the fans are interested, and the paycheck offsets what has traditionally been lower pay in the WNBA. (Although the money has increased significantly since the last CBA was adopted in 2019).
But the stability of a world that allowed that kind of free travel is changing. Russia has strong drug laws and visitors must follow local laws. And yet, it may also be true that Griner’s arrest seems like a politically motivated gotcha when the United States discussed imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia. At the time of Griner’s arrest, the Olympics were underway, and this was the leading headline from The New York Times: “Tensions in Ukraine are rising as the West accuses Russia of lying about withdrawing troops.”
There was a time when an LGBTQIA player with a size 17 shoe and a killer block could pick his offseason team according to the size of the contract. But the world is shrinking for those players. Safety is an issue in a way that goes far beyond going home alone late at night. For people of Griner’s generation, it is hard to imagine that the opportunity to travel freely could be curtailed, that human rights we have taken for granted may not always be there.
And yet we have seen the difficult situation Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player whose movements were restricted after she wrote on social media that a Chinese official had been sexually inappropriate towards her. During the Beijing Olympics, Shuai was finally brought out in public, but was deterred from speaking to the WTA and was heavily chaperoned. The WTA told Deadspin that to this day they have not been allowed to speak with Shuai.
In that case, the WTA also approached the issue cautiously, before the economic ties are severed with China through sponsorships and tournaments in the country. It was an expensive stand, but deeply ethical. How could a league that started out supporting women stand next to and see a player they feared was unable to speak and move freely?
The truth is that what may have a situation that could be quietly resolved by league officials and agents is probably beyond that in the case of Griner.
The rules for engagement have changed. The diplomatic subtleties that had to be observed are fraying. The message that the release of Griner would send to an international audience does not outweigh the demonstration of strength that her continued imprisonment sends instead. Asking quietly will not change that, and probably will not ask out loud either.