Basketball Star Brittney Griner Becomes Political Pawn In A War No One Wanted

Originally posted here

In the world of politics (both nationally and internationally) the Black body has constantly been used as a bargaining chip for the advancement of whiteness. Unfortunately, two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star, Brittney Griner is the latest pawn to be placed on the chessboard of international conflict negotiations. 

On February 17, the professional basketball player was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow after the search of her luggage allegedly revealed a vape cartridge containing hashish oil. Despite the ongoing tensions between the US and Russia, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Griner had a professional obligation to return to the country to resume her post as the center for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, one she’s held since 2014. With the international season underway, fans became concerned for the athlete’s whereabouts when a week’s time had passed without a new post from the star on her Instagram profile or any public sighting. Shortly after, rumors began to circulate online that she was taken into custody by the Russian government. These sprinklings of concern quickly grew into loud demands for answers. 

It was later revealed that Griner had not checked in at the athletic facilities because she was being held in prison on drug smuggling charges. That’s right, drug smuggling charges! For the alleged possession of a vape cartridge marked for single-person usage.  For context, hashish oil, also known as cannabis oil, used in many holistic medical treatment plans for combat soldiers with severe PTSD, advanced-stage cancer patients, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions is both legal in the state of Arizona where Griner plays professional as well as her home state of Texas. 

This isn’t the first time an American sports figure had been detained internationally for committing an infraction in direct violation of a visiting country’s laws. In 2018, the now Greensboro Swarm’s guard LiAngelo Ball was arrested alongside then UCLA teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill in China for shoplifting allegations. In 2016, while competing in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Ryan Lochte was charged by authorities with falsely reporting a crime. The nuance in Griner’s situation is the intersection of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Unlike in the cases of Ball or Lochte, Griner’s alleged crime did not cause financial loss to a local business (Ball) or divert police resources away from citizens (Lochte). Also, Griner unlike the others remains in custody. 

During an interview with Joy-Ann Reid, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the 18th congressional district of Houston, Texas where Griner is from, spoke about Griner’s imprisonment stating,

that customs agent well knew that he could have provided her a temporary suspension out of the country and not [let her] come back for a period of time. [He] could have confiscated what she had allegedly and sent her on her way. You wonder why she was selected?

In a statement posted onto social media, the Phoenix Mercury addressed Griner’s arrest writing, “We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA, and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this point our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.” The statement was met with mixed feelings. Some fans applauded the team for publicly addressing the ordeal while others criticized the team as well as the league for underpaying their players (when compared to their male counterparts) which forces many of their althetes to play internationally to earn a better living. 

As Griner’s detainment continues to gain international coverage, Secretary of State Antony Blinken broadly spoke on the matter stating, “the United States is working to free Americans in Russian custody.” Of the other Americans currently being held in Russian custody is fellow Texas native and ex-Marine, Trevor Reed. Since his imprisonment, representatives report Reed’s health has begun to fail due to the conditions of the prison in which is being held in. U.S. Embassy Russian Spokeperson Jason P. Rebholz took to Twitter to share,

Trevor Reed has had prolonged exposure to another prisoner with active tuberculosis. Trevor now reports he is coughing up blood and has not received medical care for it.

Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, broke her silence on Instagram posting a picture of the couple during happier time along with a note to her wife’s supporters. “Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely,” wrote Cherelle.    

This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the first time a citizen of a particular country has been used as leverage in the political conflict. Unfortunately, this scenario is a bit more nuanced than other detainments. Most political prisoners are journalists such as Julian Assange, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, military personel, or elected officials. Brittney Griner is none of these things.

Griner’s imprisonment is a disgusting and disgraceful political power move to leverage a civilian that will no doubt cause irreversible mental harm to not only Griner but her family, teammates, coaching staff, and fans around the globe. Russia’s use of Griner as a political pawn in this ongoing game of war or no war, grossly miscalculates how the United States “cares” for the well-being of Black citizens, Black women, and Black queer people all of which Griner is and given the US’ track record, they see as expendable. Brittney Griner does not deserve this. 

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