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Brittney Griner’s Detention Continues Concerns

Brittney Griner’s Detention Continues Concerns

In the last public sightings of Brittney Griner, the WNBA player is seen walking through airport security with a small, black suitcase. The star center for the Phoenix Mercury landed at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow ready to play another season with a Russian league as she’s done for the last seven years. In the security footage, she’s wearing a black hoodie with “Black Lives for Peace” written on the back, with her signature locs hanging past her shoulders.

Griner is believed to have been arrested in February by Russian authorities on drug smuggling charges — vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. In America, we didn’t hear about the arrest until weeks later. It’s now May and still little is known about her circumstances. This uncertainty has garnered an outpouring of support from fans; however, the lack of response from anywhere else exposes longstanding gender inequities in professional sports.

I was disturbed by the news that Russia had detained Griner. Given the current tension between Russia and the United States over Ukraine, it’s hard to believe anything Russia has claimed regarding Americans. What’s also disturbing is the lack of media attention toward the situation.

Griner, 31, is arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time. She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time All-Star, and she has won a national championship at Baylor as well as a WNBA championship with the Mercury. She’s the best of the best.

Just under 7 feet tall, you couldn’t ignore Griner if you tried. Off the court, she’s also been a force, coming out as gay at age 22, just as she was entering into professional basketball. 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.

Since 2014, during the off-season, Griner has played for EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, earning over $1 million per season — more than quadruple her WNBA salary. She last played for UMMC on January 29, before the league took a two-week break in February for the FIBA World Cup. Truth is, if Griner were LeBron James or Stephen Curry, she probably wouldn’t have been in Russia in the first place, as most NBA players make more than 200 times the maximum WNBA salary.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams and WNBA officials began calling players out of the country. It was already too late for Brittney Griner, who is believed to have entered Russian one week earlier. A Russian court ruled in March that Griner’s jail time would be extended until at least May 19. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Griner’s loved ones can expect to see her released on that date.

Much has been said on social media about Russia’s problematic history of racism and downright hatred toward America. But its ongoing attitude of anti-LGBTQIA sentiment isn’t to be taken lightly either. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it a point to prioritize a “gay propaganda” agenda during his presidency that has equated homosexuality with pedophilia and has jailed queer activists. We should all be alarmed that Griner is being detained in a country whose leader has called gender fluidity “a crime against humanity.”

Intersectionality can’t be ignored in this case. The term, coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Queer women of color are more likely to be wrongly arrested, and bias against them justifies mistreatment. Brittney Griner is an openly queer Black woman. In Russia, simply speaking about same-sex relationships as socially acceptable means breaking the law.

Griner is not only a superstar in America, but in Russia as well. While many All-Star WNBA players are on the UMMC team, Griner is one of only two Black players and the only Black American. It doesn’t seem coincidental that Russia is allegedly charging an American Black queer woman with marijuana possession.

Perhaps the Russian government thought we would just believe the worst about a Black woman and that she is rightfully being incarcerated. Perhaps they thought that the racism embedded in our continued “war on drugs” would justify their detention of a Black woman. Yet, in our country, Black people are almost three times as likely to be arrested for drug possession, particularly marijuana, than white people. These stereotypes, although commonplace for us, are setting Brittney Griner up to be potentially wrongly convicted.

As we keep Griner in our prayers, it should serve as another reminder that we should acknowledge on own mess. Russia is not erasing the fact that Griner is queer, and neither should we. Oftentimes in pop culture, we treat being Black and LGBTQIA as an either/or situation. In times like these, we’re reminded that prejudice is multi-dimensional.

It’s difficult to call out Russia and not acknowledge the lack of intersectionality in our own front yard. Right now, Congress hasn’t been able to pass the Equality Act, a pivotal piece of legislation that would federally protect LGBTQIA across the country.

Trevor Reed, a former Marine held in Russian detention since 2019 on charges for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers in an altercation, has been released. Reed was freed last week in a prisoner swap with a Russian citizen. With his release, the question is raised even more – What is going on with Brittney Griner?

In 2009, award-winning journalist Sarah Shourd was hiking in an American tourist friendly destination in Kurdistan, when she was arrested, along with two others, by Iranian soldiers and accused of illegally crossing into Iran. She was detained in solitary confinement in prison in Iran for 410 days, until an international brokering for her release. We can only pray that Griner will not endure a similar fate or worse.

The WNBA season starts on May 6, most likely without Brittney Griner. Although I’m sure that she is at the forefront of their minds, they have to move on with preparing for the upcoming season. That has to be incredibly difficult. It’s almost an unbelievable circumstance for a Black woman to be in. But sadly, we’re not surprised. Imagine if Lebron James or Stephen Curry was there instead. The calls for release would be louder and non-stop.

Related Links:

The Representation of Incarcerated Black Women

The Marijuana Industry Hurts Black and Latinx Sellers

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