Brittney Griner is not forgotten, as she sits in a Russian jail cell after pleading guilty to having a tiny amount of cannabis oil in her luggage after playing basketball for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason.
Now, her jersey number is on the court as a reminder that she is missed, and different players and coaches tweet about her detainment every day as she is enduring a sham trial that is a fig leaf for what is essentially her status as a political hostage.
On Monday night, WNBA Player Association Executive Director Terri Jackson went on The Daily Show to add urgency, calling on President Biden to bring Griner home.
Griner has become the face of a larger problem for the US, and today, Biden officially declared this kind of detention a national emergency. An executive order said it, “constitute(s) an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Jackson is a fierce advocate for players, and her advocacy here for a player and a person she cares about is important. As a gay Black woman, Griner has reason to feel even less safe in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where same-sex marriage is not recognized. We’ve all seen the photos of Griner behind bars holding a printed image of her league mates wearing her number. Her eyes a bit hollow and frightened since her Feb. 17 arrest. It is not difficult to imagine how it would feel to be in her place, a pawn in an international stalemate.
Griner belongs home, with her wife Cherelle and on a WNBA basketball court. There is, however, a bigger picture here. According to this Reuters piece, there are about 60 unlawfully detained Americans across 18 countries. There is journalist Austin Tice, who has been detained in Syria since 2012. Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage by Russia in 2020 and is serving a 16-year sentence. Whelan, a former Marine, denies the charges.
Earlier this year another imprisoned American Marine in Russia, Trevor Reed, was freed after a prisoner swap. He’d been held nearly four years and was in poor health.
They all deserve to be home with their families and daily routines. The process of extricating them is tricky, because if the US government pays for hostages in currency, prisoners, or policy, it endangers every American who travels off the beaten path. Griner has never asserted that the containers with cannabis didn’t belong to her, and although what has happened is an injustice, even so, it may indicate a level of comfort as an American abroad that no longer exists.
The invasion of Ukraine and Griner’s detainment may be the end of American participation in the Russian Women’s Premier Basketball League. It’s hard to imagine players ignoring the new risk calculus after watching Griner suffer such confinement.
Russia has courted sports fans and athletes alike. In 2014, the Olympics were held in Sochi and in 2018, 12 stadiums across the country were used for the World Cup. These tournaments tacitly serve as invitations to the sporting world, and communicated a certain openness.
American basketball players have enjoyed playing in Russia for years. This Washington Post report highlights that it isn’t just bigger paychecks, but the level of play and the respect for the game that has enticed the best women to ever play the game to head there to play. They flew on private jets with business class amenities there, while in the WNBA the flights for those long legs are the same as other mere mortals. Not to be confused with the personal freedoms historically enjoyed in the US, but Russia was a friendly place to play.
But no more.
Today, the White House released a transcript of a background call on that new executive order, called “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home,” related to Americans detained abroad. As part of the response to the growing outcry about Griner and other detainees, it will add North Korea, Russia, Burma, Venezuela, and China to a list of nations it considers at a higher risk for holding Americans captive.
For the family and friends of Griner and those detained, there is no higher priority than getting their loved ones back. For the US government, however, there are other things to consider. Some reports note that given the outrage about Griner, Russian demands for her release are getting higher. Might she be worth a high-level international arms dealer like Viktor Bout? Or perhaps removing sanctions that were put in place to punish Russia for invading Ukraine?
This is why the executive order explains that the detention of Americans abroad is a threat to our national security and economy. If Griner’s release wins one of those concessions, Russia has found a very successful strategy to strong-arm the United States and other NATO countries without having to take up arms. It took years for the US to impose the current suite of sanctions against Russian goods, banks, and individuals.
Here’s how one senior administration official put it on the background call Monday night: “But I can tell you one thing: That the President of the United States, and my direct report, Secretary (Antony) Blinken, they are committed to getting all these cases resolved and getting this done, and at the same time, start to bring up a deterrence strategy that can raise the cost of hostage-taking and wrongful detention taking to the point that it’s no longer a feasible diplomatic strategy for those who would use it.”
A strategy. The US really can’t afford to let Griner’s detainment become a strategy. It makes anyone who travels there a potential asset in a political game. Will travelers see the “D” next to those nations in the State Department’s travel advisories? Does anyone actually check travel advisories before going abroad?
It is both an assessment of risk and also a shifting of the burden to travelers. Griner might have known Russia was an authoritarian-leaning nation with harsh drug laws and antipathy for LGBTQ people. Putin passed the first law in 2013 about distributing “propaganda” to minors. And yet, all those diverse fans from around the globe traveled to watch the World Cup. These are large and complex assessments that are difficult for individual travelers to make. As much as we take our Americanness with us when we travel, it is not genuine insulation from harm abroad.
“One (aim) is resolve the current cases and bring people home and, at the same time, add to the costs for those who engage in this behavior through the executive order; add to the transparency for American travelers and for the world by the new indicator; and overall, reduce the next generation, so to speak, of cases from arising in the first place.”
Brittney Griner, a powerful athlete in a popular league, should be home. And yet America can’t incentivize hostage-taking. It’s hard to imagine seeing these values at odds with each other doesn’t delight Putin, who has always stoked the culture wars in the US. Heads he wins, tails we lose.