Brittney Griner: How can a US basketball star just vanish?

·7 min read
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury is seen during the game against the Indiana Fever at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on September 6, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana
Family and friends of the star have remained quiet about her detention

She's arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time, and she was detained in Moscow amid the war in Ukraine. After two months in custody, the world is now paying more attention to her case.

In one of the last public sightings of Brittney Griner, captured on CCTV, the American professional basketball player is seen walking through airport security trailing a small, black suitcase.

Ms Griner, a star centre for the Phoenix Mercury, had landed at the Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, in February. She was in Russia to play during the WNBA off-season.

In the security footage, she wears running shoes, black sweatpants and a black hoodie with "Black Lives for Peace" written on the back, her dark hair hanging in locs down past her shoulders.

At 6ft 9in - tall even by basketball standards - she towers above the customs agents and other travellers.

In another shot, she is seen sitting in front of a man, seemingly a customs agent, shaking her head "no". Then, nothing - until a Russian mugshot emerged on state television.

Ms Griner, 31, had been arrested by Russian authorities on drug charges.

On 13 May, her lawyer told reporters that her extension had been extended by a month, likely ahead of a trial.

Citing unnamed sources, state-owned Russian outlet TASS has reported that Russia hopes to trade Ms Griner for an arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence in the US, Viktor Bout. That has yet to be confirmed.

The uncertainty around her fate has fuelled an outpouring of support for the player. And it has also engendered a sense of outrage among some fans who say the response to Ms Griner's detainment was, at first, strangely muted.

Following her arrest, fans and experts said that they felt the attention she was given in comparison to male players exposed longstanding gender inequities in professional sports.

"If this was an NBA [professional men's league] player of her calibre... this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world," said Tamryn Spruill, a sports journalist who is writing a book on the WNBA and Ms Griner's contributions to the league.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots over Azurá Stevens #30 of the Chicago Sky in the first half at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Brittney Griner is thought to have been detained for nearly four weeks

Ms Griner, a nine-year veteran of the league - is the "best of the best", said Melissa Isaacson, a sportswriter and professor at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois.

"She's every bit the Tom Brady of her sport," Ms Isaacson said. "You could argue very accurately that she is one of the best athletes in the world."

A native of Houston, Texas, she earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University where she led the team to a national championship.

She is now one of the WNBA's most dominant players in history, widely considered the best offensive player in the league.

Few have accomplished what Ms Griner has done - winning a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles and an Olympic gold medal. And, famously, her ability to dunk is unmatched.

Off the court, she has also been seen as a trailblazer, coming out as gay at age 22, just around the time of her entry into professional sport.

She then became the first overall draft pick in the WNBA that year and, soon after, the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike.

"Before Griner, there was this shadow over the league, where it was like 'don't say gay,'" Ms Spruill said. "And she was just like 'screw that, this is who I am'."

"BG's always been one to be a pioneer," Griner's teammate, Diana Taurasi has said.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury kisses her wife Cherelle Griner in the stands after the Mercury defeated the Las Vegas Aces
Brittney Griner was the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike

Despite all this, Ms Griner had a second job, and that was why she had flown to Russia - to play for EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she had worked since 2014 during the US off-season.

Roughly half of WNBA players compete overseas in the off-season. For most, it's a way to augment their domestic income: WNBA players receive roughly five times more in Russia than they do in the US.

"If she were Steph Curry or LeBron James, she wouldn't be over there at all because she'd be making enough money," Ms Spruill said.

Ms Griner's counterparts in the men's league make more than 200 times the maximum WNBA salary.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams and US and WNBA officials began calling players out of the country.

But it was too late for Brittney Griner, who is believed to have entered Russia one week earlier, on 17 February, though the timing remains unclear.

The Russian Federal Customs Service said in a press release that a sniffer dog had led authorities to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player and that it had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency, Tass, identified the player as Ms Griner.

Russian authorities only confirmed her detention the third week of March, though they disclosed she was stopped at the airport in February.

Western Conference All-Star Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury attempts a slam dunk against the Eastern Conference during the first half of the WNBA All-Star Game at US Airways Center on July 19, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona
Griner is the first woman in the league to consistently dunk

Initially, US authorities and representatives for Brittney Griner were largely silent, other than to say they were working to bring her home.

In early May, however, the State Department said it considers Ms Griner to be "wrongfully" detained.

The case is now reportedly being handled by a special departmental section that specialises in helping release Americans held hostage or wrongfully imprisoned overseas.

On 13 May, the US State Department said a consular official the court hearing in which her hearing was extended, and spoke to Griner briefly.

A spokesman said Griner was doing "as well as can be expected during exceedingly difficult circumstances".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April that American officials are "doing everything we can" to help her.

"There's only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point," Mr Blinken said.

Ms Griner's agent, Lindsay Colas, has said she was in "close contact" with the player and her lawyer in Russia, but could not comment further.

While there is no indication that Ms Griner's arrest was connected to the invasion of Ukraine, some US officials have indicated strained US-Russian relations may jeopardise her safe return.

"We don't want Ms Griner to become a pawn in the political battle that's being waged throughout the world right now," said US congressman John Garamendi, a member of the House of Representatives' armed services committee.

"The war in Ukraine has essentially severed diplomatic ties between the US and Russia," Mr Garamendi said. "That is going to exacerbate this issue."

She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on drug charges.

The US embassy in Russia did not respond to a request for comment.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury high fives fans as she walks off the court following the first half of the WNBA game against the San Antonio Stars at Talking Stick Resort Arena on July 30, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona
The basketball star has remained dominant in WNBA since her rookie year

As Ms Griner's detention grinds on, some fans have been left incredulous by an apparent lack of attention for a world-class athlete in prison among sports media.

Some have speculated that the silence was intentional - an effort to avoid inflaming an already precarious situation amid negotiations with Russia.

But others, like Ms Spruill, say the somewhat muffled initial coverage on Ms Griner lays bare the clear inequities faced by female athletes.

Much more ink has been devoted to male players - whether it is American football player's Tom Brady's on-again, off-again retirement, Novak Djokovic's Covid saga in Australia, or Aaron Rodger's vaccination status - than to Brittney Griner, Ms Spruill points out.

Nearly 60,000 fans have signed an online petition, organised by Ms Spruill, demanding the US government prioritise her safe return and treat her like "any other sports icon".

"There has absolutely not been enough coverage," Ms Spruill said. "It's hard for me to read that other than a choice by the broader media."

Ms Griner's wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram in April about the painful wait.

"People say 'stay busy.' Yet, there's not a task in this world that could keep any of us from worrying about you. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by," she wrote.

"There are no words to express this pain. I'm hurting, we're hurting".

  • Story first published March 2022; updated May 2022

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