Apr 28, 2022
Brittney Griner (No. 42) of the Phoenix Mercury during the game against the Indiana Fever at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Sept. 6, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Where is Brittney Griner?
Now that Trevor Reed, a U.S. citizen and former Marine held in Russian detention since 2019 on specious charges for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers in an altercation, has returned home, this question has been rekindled. Reed was freed on Wednesday in a prisoner swap involving Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko; the ex-pilot had been convicted of drug smuggling in 2011 and was serving a 20-year sentence in Connecticut. Reed, however, wasn’t the only American being held in Russia under suspicious circumstances (U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called Reed’s trial “theater of the absurd”). Paul Whalen, another former Marine who in 2020 was convicted of spying in Russia, is serving a 16-year sentence; Whalen has denied the charges, which the U.S. government has denounced as unfair.
And Griner, the WNBA superstar, remains in Russia. She was taken into custody in February, after customs officials allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. “A criminal case has been opened against an American citizen for smuggling a significant amount of drugs,” a Russian official said in March. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Russian professional team UMMC Ekaterinburg, could face up to 10 years in prison.
While one of the WNBA’s premier players is detained in a country waging a widely-denounced war in Ukraine, Griner’s plight had largely faded from public consciousness. To many observers, the culprit for this outcome is clear. “You’ve Brittney Griner, one of the greatest women to ever play the game of basketball, and it just fell off everybody’s radar,” says Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital. “What if this was Kyrie Irving? It would be the front page of every paper every single day, Kyrie still in detention. But with Brittney Griner, it hasn’t been.”
To some extent, this by design. Griner’s camp has largely kept a low profile during her ordeal, for fear of attracting too much attention to her case—and potentially irritating Russian authorities or raising her value as an asset—while it works through the legal system. Her next hearing is scheduled for May 19. Unlike Reed and Whalen, Griner has not been formally charged. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kawaga Colas. “I spend hours in communication every day with a dedicated group of people who are working to get BG home,” Colas wrote. “It is a community filled with activists—including WNBA players who’ve led some of our most important cultural conversations in recent years. It’s a community that chooses its words carefully, that’s used to moving together as a unit.” Colas wrote that she couldn’t get delve into the details of Griner’s case; she called out pay disparities that compel female stars like Griner to seek out more lucrative second jobs playing in Russia and Turkey.
“As I do everything in my power to get BG home, my heart is overflowing with joy for The Reed Family,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle, wrote on Instagram. “I do not personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home.”
A WNBA spokesperson said in a statement: “We continue to have regular conversations with the U.S. government on Brittney Griner’s case and getting her home safe and as soon as possible remains the WNBA’s top priority.”
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist who spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned in Iran for spying allegations before being freed in a 2016 prisoner swap, champions a more vocal approach by Griner’s team. “I follow cases of Americans wrongfully detained, held hostage, or otherwise having their rights abused by foreign governments all the time because of my own experience,” says Rezaian. “I learned a lot of things in that process. And one is that the U.S. government and other like-minded democracies often urge their citizens and the families of citizens being held wrongfully by governments abroad to stay quiet. That they need time and the ability to do their jobs, free from the spotlight of the media.”
“I always call bullshit on that.”
Rezaian points to the Reed case an example. His parents protested outside the White House and made TV appearances. They met with President Joe Biden, who after Reed’s release said “I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence.”
“My experience in my own case, and then dozens of cases after that shows that it’s the people who are the loudest who recover their family members the quickest,” says Rezaian. “And no one who has been held hostage abroad, in the six years since I have been released and writing and reporting on these cases, has come to me and said, Hey, Jason, I wish you’d kept your mouth shut.”
Rezaian says he reached out one of Griner’s reps to offer help; the rep told Rezaian he was familiar with his case and appreciated the note. Rezaian says he hasn’t heard from him since. “But I will say that no one has ever reached out to me and told me to shut up,” says Rezaian.
The WNBA season starts on May 6, most likely with Griner—one of the ascendant league’s marquee players—stuck in Russia. It’s an almost unimaginable circumstance. Imagine Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry was there instead? The calls for her release will only grow louder.