At long last, a deal has been struck to release WNBA player Brittney Griner from a Russian prison. She was sentenced to a draconian nine years after a small amount of cannabis oil was found in a vape cartridge in her luggage.
But this wasn’t really about Russia taking a stand against recreational or medicinal cannabinoid use, Griner was a political pawn from the moment she got pulled out of the airport security line.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” President Biden said, noting how these months have been hell on Griner. “We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.”
What Griner had going for her was that the players in the WNBA had spent the last five years learning how to use their platforms and work through political channels. And they had her back.
WNBA players worked hard to keep Griner’s name in the news. On day 293 of Griner’s imprisonment, aka Wednesday, Mystics player Elizabeth Williams told an audience of Seton Hall students that this was a conscious strategy. Every day a player tweeted, keeping the drumbeat up despite the monotony of inaction, to keep Griner’s humanity at the forefront. Williams said it’s easy to forget someone is a real person when they become a cause.
Today, Williams and the other players in the WNBA can celebrate that Griner is finally going to be coming home.
But some of the pain from this will linger. Williams said that, anecdotally, fewer WNBA players are heading back to the countries that pay them the most to play, China, Russia, and Turkey. China has been under COVID restriction anyway, but the illusion that they can travel freely to augment, if not double and triple, their WNBA salaries without risk has been dashed.
This is the second victory for WNBA players this week. Williams was also one of the first players to don a “Vote Warnock” T-shirt back in the 2020 Wubble for a televised game. She was a member of the Atlanta Dream and Kelley Loeffler, the woman who signed her checks, was also running for Senate. The WNBA players in the quarantined bubble had time to discuss Loeffler’s opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, she even claimed it was out to destroy the nuclear family.
In what is now history, Williams and her colleagues interviewed Georgia candidates with the help of Stacey Abrams, and settled on a Reverend named Raphael Warnock, who on Tuesday won a full six-year term in the US Senate.
You can’t be a woman in professional team sports without supporting a cause, the cause that is a woman’s right to play sports. It’s not why little girls want to play sports, but because the culture we live in still treats women’s sports as lesser, women who play sports learn they have to advocate for themselves. It’s what makes supporting other causes seem less of a departure.
There were those who thought a player like Tom Brady or LeBron James would have been released more quickly, but ESPN reporter TJ Quinn doubted that on Wednesday during a panel discussion with Williams and Seton Hall Center for Sports Media founder Bob Ley. Quinn said LeBron would be higher profile than Griner, and thus a more valuable pawn. It might actually have been harder to get a player like that released.
(Full disclosure, I’m the executive director of the Seton Hall Centre for Sports Media.)
So to Griner. The WNBA players had already banded together to use their platform before, and to political success. They had the channels to the Biden Administration, and arguably helped Joe Biden take Georgia in 2020 by energizing Democratic voters in the state. Did that create more pressure for Griner’s release than for other detained citizens? Perhaps, but Griner wasn’t included in an earlier prisoner swap with Russia for Trevor Reed.
Reports had speculated that Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan might be exchanged for imprisoned arms dealer Victor Bout, but Griner’s deal was a one-to-one exchange.
“We never forgot about Brittney. We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whalen, who’s been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said in remarks at the White House as reported in the Washington Post. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. … Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.
When so many wanted to make this an either-or between Griner and Whelan, it isn’t. Although Russian leader Vladimir Putin must love that even in her release, he has found a way to stoke American division.
David Whelan released a statement on behalf of Paul Whelan’s family. “There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed & for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release,” Biden said.
Welcome home, Brittney. There will be plenty of time to weigh the rationale between her release for a man who wrought so much death and destruction, and to advocate for the release of other detained prisoners. But in this moment, let’s give the WNBA players and Griner’s family a moment to celebrate.
She is home.