Today, a Russian court upheld the nine-year sentence for WNBA player Brittney Griner. Nine years for a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner reportedly had to watch the proceedings via video link in the detention center where she has been imprisoned.
According to the New York Times, Griner will be sent to a penal colony to serve the rest of her sentence.
“Brittney has repeatedly taken responsibility and made clear that she never intended to break Russian laws,” the WNBA Players Association said in a statement. “While their legal system is very different from ours, there is no doubt that the original sentence she received was extreme, even for the Russian legal system. This appeal is further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained — she is very clearly a hostage.”
Sadly, there is a resignation that sets in.
Griner’s family, the WNBA, and fans can petition President Joe Biden’s administration to negotiate for her release, but reports suggest the Russian government hasn’t countered the United State’s offer for her release. The details are not entirely public, but early reports suggest the U.S. was willing to trade imprisoned arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and another detained American, Paul Whelan.
Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who has been negotiating on behalf of the imprisoned Americans called Griner’s judicial process, “largely shambolic” in a press conference. He also said he was cautiously optimistic the U.S. would be able to bring Griner and Whelan home before the end of the year. Let’s hope his optimism bears out.
Still, this is a power game. It’s easy to imagine Russian leader Vladimir Putin enjoying the idea of keeping an American women’s basketball star, one who has a wife and defies the traditional gender expectations he adheres to, locked away.
Putin must delight in the calls for Biden to do more. In the frustration of Griner’s teammates as they used the occasion of her birthday to speak her name, as NBA players call for their sister’s release.
With the college basketball season about to begin, Breanna Stewart tweeted again in support of Griner.
It’s looking like Griner’s milestones without freedom are going to start stacking up. Her 32nd birthday, Thanksgiving, perhaps Christmas. There have been reports that the Russian government has been difficult to negotiate with. The New York Times wrote last week that Griner is starting to lose hope.
A new poll of sports fans from Seton Hall reflects how complicated this issue is. Yes, Griner should be home, but travel abroad means being subject to the laws, and occasionally whims, of other nations. (Full disclosure, I am the executive director of the Center for Sports Media at Seton Hall.)
In the Seton Hall poll, people were evenly split as to whether Griner was imprisoned fairly given Russian law, but 62 percent of people said she was being used as a political pawn. At the same time, 45 percent of self-described avid sports fans said the U.S. had done enough to get Griner released, with 33 percent saying it hadn’t, and 22 percent saying they didn’t know.
Both of these things can be true. Griner can be a pawn, and the U.S. government can be working hard to have her released. The futility of those efforts may very well be the point for Russia, a high-profile failure of the American diplomatic process. If politics are messy, international relations are a Gordian Knot.
One poll question garnered a particularly interesting response. Asked if there should be a list of restricted countries when it comes to international sports competition, a plurality agreed at 50 percent. Among the general population, 28 percent said no and 22 percent had no opinion.
Certainly, that becomes more of an issue in women’s sports. We have seen tennis player Peng Shuai essentially detained before the Olympics when she accused a former Chinese official of harassment. More recently, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi was celebrated by protesters for competing in South Korea without a hijab.
Iran has been roiled by protest in recent weeks as women have protested the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained by the “morality police” for her clothing. Like Peng, Rekabi later backtracked under pressure, saying that the lack of a hijab had been unintentional.
As much as women in sports have defined what their bodies can do, these events indicate that they are not as free as men who play sports. Where cultural and religious norms are more restrictive for women, they can likewise be for women who play sports.
The question has been asked, would an NBA player face the same treatment in a place like Russia? And theoretically, he could, but governments have recently shown themselves more willing to enforce their rules against women than men.
Is this fair to Griner? Absolutely not.
She is a reminder that rules can be enforced as much to punish individuals as to send a message. And in some cases, to remind everyone who wields control.