Editor’s Note: This article was finalized the same day as Brittney Griner's release on December 8, 2022. With relief and gratitude for her unexpected return, we publish it as it was written.
“On February 17, 2022, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was detained upon her arrival in Moscow. As of April 29, 2022, Griner was officially classified as a wrongful detention by the U.S. Department, which signals that regardless of the status of her legal case, the U.S. government will seek to negotiate her release.” - Bring Brittney Griner Home (wearebg.org)
Brittney Yevette Griner is a two time Olympic medalist and three time All-American and WNBA superstar. She helped the United States women's national basketball team win gold in 2016 and 2020. During the course of her basketball career, she sustained injuries to her ankles, knees, and spine, and like a growing number of athletes, she and her doctor chose cannabis for pain management.
Griner, a Black, queer woman, spent her 32nd birthday in a Russian prison.
She was arrested and charged for allegedly bringing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil into the country. She testified later that she did not intend to bring cannabis oil into the country, and her medical team notes that she is permitted to medicate with cannabis in the state of Arizona, where she has played for the women’s professional league, Phoenix Mercury, since 2014.
But why was she there?
Griner arrived in Moscow to play for the Russia Premier League in the WNBA off season largely due to pay inequity. NPR’s Laurel Wamsley breaks down the details on the extreme salary differences between the women's and the men’s national basketball teams:
“The average NBA base salary this season is about $5.4 million, compared with about $120,600 for the WNBA. The WNBA season is shorter — 36 games versus 82 in the NBA. But the average annual base salaries mean an NBA player makes 44 times what the average WNBA player makes.” (NPR)
Griner was first in a detention center, then transported to a penal colony in Mordovia - a women’s prison located about 300 miles southeast of Moscow.
Nearly 300 days
Griner missed the start of her WNBA season, the All-Star game, the FIBA World Championships, and the playoffs. She should have been at home, being celebrated for her talent. Moreover, she should have been home with her family and her community.
Convicted of these charges to an inhumane 9 years, her appeal was denied on Oct. 25.
Attention to this wrongful detainment is dissipating. Our collective outrage is not enough.
At times, Griner’s whereabouts while in transport, her health, and her living conditions have been largely unknown, as communications are muddied with geo-political tensions (she was arrested just days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022).
We hope the details and facts as we know it will move you to participate in the calls to action, as outlined by her family, so we can all fight together to Bring Brittney Home.
Scroll on for those details below.
Inside a Russian Penal Colony
Russian punk band and activists Pussy Riot have first hand knowledge and personal experience with the Russian penal colony system.
The band was arrested in 2012 after a 40 second protest performance against Vladimir Putin inside Christ Savior Cathedral. They screamed “Mother Mary, please drive Putin away.” The cathedral is known as one of Moscow’s grandest houses of worship.
The three members were sentenced to two years in a Russian penal colony. At the time the case brought more international awareness to Russia's lack of free speech. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said on its official Twitter feed that the sentence was “disproportionate.” (CNN)
Phil Boas of Arizona Central, a media outlet based in Griner’s team state, interviewed one band member, “Nadya” Tolokonnikova. Physical abuse and torture in these penal colonies are common. She and other prisoners working 16 hour days are severely punished for mistakes.
Tolokonnikova speaks about some graphic and hard to digest details about their living arrangements that are worth knowing to empathize and understand the physical and mental distress Griner could be under, though the details could be upsetting to some, so read at your discretion (Arizona Central).
Boas concludes his article by bluntly saying what many of us are thinking but - maybe not loud enough.
“We all know Griner’s predicament could end tomorrow with a U.S.-Russian prisoner swap. But what few are saying and must know is that it might never end, that Brittney Griner is caught in the awakening gears of a changing world and could conceivably spend the rest of her life in captivity.”
People in Power
The homophobia, racism, and misogyny in Russia is worrisome for Brittney Griner’s case, but it is so in the United States as well. Though she is receiving more attention than fellow wrongfully detained American citizen Paul Whelan, perhaps due to her celebrity status, it’s easy to see how these intersections - her race, sexual orientation, and gender presentation - could also be suppresing public response.
Even reactions from NBA players have been mild. A few tweets here, a broad stroke at hopeful forward motion on her birthday, October 18th. It is all not enough to keep her at the front of the news engine, to bring her home, and bring attention to how gross inequities in both countries led her there.
Though the United States recognizes Griner’s imprisonment and subsequent charge of cannabis as a wrongful detainment, cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. Her case is once again drawing debate over the use of cannabis for recreational and medicinal use.
How can our country affirm their defense of her while its own justice system has failed at addressing our war on drugs?
Dozens of states have decriminalized, yet thousands lay in American prisons waiting for mass expungement of nonviolent offenses. Cannabis is still labeled as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it is thought to have no medicinal value and addictive properties. This is the same category as heroin and ecstasy.
Our response to our own inequities towards decriminalization can and will influence Brittney Griner’s case. It is imperative that our justice system urgently fix the systemic gaps, and fund research to support the facts of medicinal cannabis use.
Cannabis in the NBA
Former NBA player Shawn Kemp played for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1990s, before both leagues began testing for cannabis use and before the public climate changed attitudes towards it. A lot has changed, and yet remains the same.
Pain suppression due to its anti-inflammatory nature is one reason athletes depend on cannabis to provide plant-based relief without the addictive nature of opioid pain management. Kemp told the New York Times that he believes his “14-year NBA career might have been longer had he been able to use marijuana without penalty in his final years.” (NYT)
Kemp is also one of several professional athletes who used their personal experiences with cannabis use as a testimony to invest in and or operate their own cannabis businesses.
Kemp, who opened a Seattle dispensary in 2019, said this in a NYTimes interview:
“There’s still a lot for people to learn throughout the world with this stuff,” Kemp said. “And hopefully they will someday, where people will see cannabis oil and all these things and realize some athletes use this stuff to benefit their body, calm their body down from beating up their body so much on a daily basis.” - Former NBA star Shawn Kemp
Griner’s Absence is Palpable
Here’s what you can do to help, according to Brittney Griner’s family:
Contact Your Representatives. Tell them to bring Brittney home!
To contact the White House, click here
To find your Senator, click here.
To find your Representatives, click here
Write Brittney a Letter:
Let Brittney know you are thinking about her. You can send her an email via WeAreBG@teamwass.com or mail a handwritten note via the We Are BG campaign:
WE ARE BG C/O
PO BOX 251949
LOS ANGELES, CA 90025
Definitions to Know
In 2020, Congress passed the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which codified how the U.S. government handles international kidnapping and detention cases.
The U.S. Secretary of State is responsible for reviewing international detention cases, they may deem an American is being detained unlawfully or wrongly based on some of these suspicions -
- They believe the American citizen will be treated unfairly or inhumanely
- They believe the arrest is being used for the purpose of extracting information from the U.S. government
- They believe the justice system in that country is incredible or unfair as reported by the State Department’s annual human rights report
Levinson Act and SPEHA
The Levinson Act codified the office and responsibilities of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA). This office is headed by a chief U.S. diplomat charged with raising the profile of Americans kidnapped or detained abroad. The Levinson Act provides a mechanism to refer unlawful detention cases into SPEHA’s purview, rather than the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau, whose oversight is limited to welfare and protection of Americans overseas.
This marks a crucial change. By moving Griner’s case to the SPEHA, the State Department has signaled that the U.S. government will now actively work to bring Griner home. Special envoys have played a key role in the safe release of Americans such as -
- Trevor Reed, U.S. Marine Corps veteran released from Russia this year
- rapper A$AP Rocky, who was held in Sweden on assault charges
The United Nations passed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) in 1963 to put customary international law in treaty form. More than 170 other countries are parties. These instructions focus primarily on providing consular notification and access with respect to foreign nationals arrested or detained in the United States, so that their governments can assist them. The U.S. Dept. of State seeks to ensure that they are treated in a manner consistent with these instructions, and that U.S. consular officers can similarly assist them.
Photo credit: We Are BG