By Vishakha Deshpande
Boston University News Service
A queer, 6-foot-8-inch American Black woman was detained in Russia on Feb.17 for alleged possession of hashish oil and a vaping device. She is now stuck in a country that blatantly opposes even the slightest conversation about same-sex couples.
Brittney Griner, America’s two-time basketball Olympian and WNBA star, is now just a mere geopolitical pawn.
Phoenix Mercury’s star center, Griner, was returning to Moscow last month to play another season with a Russian league team. Sporting a “Black Lives Matter” hoodie, she was caught on a CCTV camera at the Sheremetyevo airport, a little outside of Moscow.
According to Russian state news agency Tass, a court in the Moscow region has extended Griner’s detention until May 19. “The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19,” the court said, as reported by Tass.
Griner’s case has sparked multiple conversations about the timeliness of her arrest, as relations between Russia and America are turning sour by the day in light of the former’s invasion of Ukraine. Her safety is threatened double-fold because of her identity and the global crisis Russia has plummeted the world into.
In fear of provoking the Russian government, Griner’s family, friends, legal team, and the WNBA have chosen to stay mum on the issue. Her case is particularly complicated because of Vladimir Putin’s anti-LGBTQ stance and open condemnation of same-sex marriages.
“We [the U.S. State Department] are doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” said spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday during a briefing.
Griner’s situation has exposed a huge crack in American sports that has been previously ignored — the treatment of female athletes in the country. Griner is arguably the most powerful basketball player in the WNBA currently. And yet, it’s been a month since her arrest and there has been no development of any sort.
Imagine if a major NBA star was detained in Russia on the same accounts as Griner. The scale of media coverage, conversation, and uproar would’ve been almost cosmic. He might as well have been hailed a national hero.
That’s why the silence on Griner’s plight is important to note.
Additionally, it is imperative that we understand why Griner plays in Russia in the first place. Approximately 50% of WNBA players compete in various overseas tournaments during their offseason in hopes of earning more than what they do domestically. Griner earns roughly $221,450 from her stint in the WNBA.
She earns $1 million when she plays in Russia. A country that is far more repressive than America, is paying Griner 5 times more than the WNBA.
In a recent report by Sports Illustrated, the New York Liberty was fined $500,000 by the WNBA because the team chartered flights for its players — something that violates the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The reason cited was that it would be unfair to other players in the league who would not be as “rested” as the other Liberty players.
The concern lies right there.
While Griner’s detention throws light on the large gap between the treatment of male and female athletes in America, her status in Russia remains engulfed in an eerie silence. She is caught in a geopolitical war that might take months to cease.