Who is Brittney Griner?
The 31-year-old American center is one of the biggest stars in the WNBA, the most important women’s basketball league in the world, and perhaps its most recognized player. At 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m), she is one of the tallest basketball players in history and a terror under the basket.
She was one of the first, if not the first, viral phenomenon in women’s basketball when, in 2009, her pushed hoops went around the world while she was in high school. Then, after a halo stint at Baylor University, winning the national title in 2012, she was selected first overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury.
Since then, the accolades have only piled up: a two-time Olympic gold medalist as the starting center for the super-powerful American team, a seven-time WNBA star player, an eight-time block leader, a defensive player in 2014 and 2015, and a champion in 2014. with the Mercury, the only team he played for in the WNBA.
Last year, Griner finished second in the league’s most valuable player voting behind Jonquel Jones.
Why is she imprisoned in Russia?
On February 17, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Brittney Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for drug possession while trying to leave the country at her other club, UMMC Yekaterinburg. The activities of the Russian League did not end until April, but for weeks the US authorities had warned their nationals not to travel to Russia.
According to customs officials, Griner had in his possession vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. It was not until three weeks after his arrest, on March 5, that the news of his arrest was revealed by the New York Times.
On the same day, Russian authorities posted surveillance video on the social network Telegram showing a woman who is fairly easily identified as Brittney Griner, due to her odd complexion and distinctive style, walking through airport security. Then, after a cut, the opening of a suitcase and the discovery of a package.
If convicted by Russian courts, she could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. As soon as her arrest was announced, some expressed fear that she was being treated unfairly in a country where the rights of members of the LGBTQ+ community are regularly violated. She is openly gay from the end of her college career, doubly married, and an activist. She (she is also the first openly gay athlete represented by Nike).
His trial is scheduled for mid-June and his jail term was extended by a month to that date last week after a brief stint before a judge. She was then seen handcuffed, her head lowered and covered with the hood of her tracksuit, leaving only her thick tresses falling in front of her face.
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Why are we hearing more about your case three months after your arrest?
For more than two months, from his arrest in February to early May, his case was handled in public by US authorities as standard business. The State Department claimed to offer consular services to Griner, being careful not to make it a political issue due to the hardening of diplomatic relations between the two powers in the context of the Ukraine crisis.
The tone changed on May 3 when the State Department announced that it had concluded that the Russian Federation is unfairly holding his nationality. At the same time, his file passed into the hands of Roger Carstens, President Joe Biden’s special envoy responsible for the release of American hostages abroad.
This announcement came three days before the start of the WNBA season. Player calls for his release have started since his arrest was announced, but have only grown stronger since his return to the game.
Why do American WNBA players also play in Russia?
Unlike the men’s professional leagues, the WNBA schedule is relatively restricted. The thirty or so games of the season typically stretch from early May through August, followed by a month of playoffs ending with the arrival of fall.
Salaries are on the rise, but they are still a fraction of the sums raked in by NBA billionaires. WNBA stars can expect a maximum salary of US$228,000, while the minimum contract is US$72,000 for a veteran and US$60,000 for a rookie.
Consequently, most of the WNBA’s 144 players pursue careers abroad, spread between winter leagues in Europe, Australia, but also in South Korea, Japan and China.
As stars of the WNBA, they are particularly attractive for the marches, notably from the Ligue russe or Brittney Griner jouait l’hiver depuis 2014. ‘Summer.
Reported salaries are estimates only, but it is generally accepted that a WNBA star like Griner can earn between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per season in Russia. The great Diana Taurasi, her teammate with the Phoenix Mercury, conspicuously missed the 2015 WNBA season after UMMC Yekaterinburg offered her $1.5 million for her exclusive that year, assuring her “she’s fresh and ready for recovery.” in autumn, even if the two seasons do not overlap.
What is the WNBA doing to support Brittney Griner?
The league announced at the beginning of the season that a giant sticker would be placed on the field of each of its 12 teams with the mention BG42, that is, its initials and its number. Brittney Griner’s story is regularly told on broadcasts of various games, some of which are on the powerhouse ABC/ESPN consortium.
Although Griner is unable to rejoin his team at this time, the WNBA has allowed the Mercury to continue paying his salary while enjoying payroll relief. The cap is strict in the league, allowing Phoenix to acquire a replacement player without having to terminate her contract.
The players of the league, teammates and opponents, as well as coaches, managers and directors, do not miss an opportunity to talk about her and demand her return, either at a press conference or on social networks. The hashtags #WeAreBG and #FreeBrittneyGriner took hold. The season is now two weeks old, but the message continues to be delivered with the same vigor, every day.
The WNBA Women’s Players Association also officially joined a petition last weekend asking the US government to step up efforts for her release. It was launched on the change.org platform (New window) March 5 by journalist Tamryn Spruill. The petition has already garnered more than 140,000 signatures, 20,000 more in a week.
And the NBA?
When asked about Brittney Griner during the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night, Commissioner Adam Silver said he was working
Side to side with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert to secure his release. Silver recounted in particular that he did not take a strong stance early in his imprisonment at the suggestion of the relevant authorities.
The support of the NBA is crucial. The league has deeper inroads into the US state apparatus, thanks to its lobbyists and those of its owners. The relationship between the NBA and WNBA is more than brotherly: the 30 NBA teams own 50% of the WNBA, while the 12 WNBA teams own the other half.
Can we expect her to be released at the end of the WNBA season?
If Brittney Griner is indeed sentenced to prison as expected at the end of her trial currently scheduled for mid-June, US authorities could still secure her release thanks to a prisoner swap. These diplomatic negotiations can take time and, despite the current political climate, such an exchange is possible.
Two other Americans were in his situation in Russia a few weeks ago, but on April 27 the Biden administration obtained the release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine arrested in 2019 and sentenced (unfairly according to the State Department) to nine years in prison. for assaulting a policeman who was driving him to a police station after a drunken night. In exchange, the Russians obtained the release of a drug trafficker, Konstantin Yaroshenko, arrested in 2010 in Liberia.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, also reacted on Instagram to Trevor Reed’s release.
As I do everything in my power to bring BG home, my heart fills with joy for the Reed family. I don’t know them personally, but I know the pain of having a loved one detained in a foreign country. This pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home. For the Reed family, that day is today.she said.
Paul Whelan, arrested in 2018 in Moscow on his way to attend a friend’s wedding and sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage, is the other American wrongfully imprisoned in Russia according to the State Department.
Like Brittney Griner, she hopes for a favorable change, as the Russians especially want the release of arms dealer Viktor Bout, the
death merchant arrested in 2008 in Thailand and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His name was already circulating as a possible bargaining chip for Trevor Reed.
This week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the top diplomat in the Biden administration, spoke with Cherelle Griner and assured her that the dossier had his full attention and that US diplomacy was working day and night on her case.
However, nothing says that the United States will be willing to make a new trade to obtain the release of Griner or Whelan, or even their joint release, if it is Viktor Bout.
Sometimes the price of an exchange is too expensive. A reality that the world of sport knows well, but in circumstances never so dramatic.
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