Keeping quiet about Brittney Griner didn’t work
Over the past two months, the people around Brittney Griner and the WNBA have all been nervous. The idea is that any loud calls for the basketball star to be released from her Russian prison as Vladimir Putin mounts an attack against Ukraine will only upset the dictator, and because So it’s wise to work quietly and behind the scenes to free her.
It doesn’t work.
Accused of having cannabis oil in his luggage at the airport on February 17, Griner faces 10 years in prison in Russia. But her detention is also an undeniable demonstration of Putin’s power. The American athlete and Olympic athlete embodies many of the characteristics he has tried to contain in Russia, such as any discussion of non-traditional gender expectations.
Griner, who came out in 2013 and has spoken often about how misunderstood she’s been over the years, stands at 6-foot-9 and has plenty of endorsements, including Nike . She can’t be ignored even if she wants to be invisible. She’s too famous, too tall, Griner too unique to be mistaken.
“This is an unthinkable situation for BG,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Monday. as reported by ESPN, excellently reported on this story. “She continues to have our full support. Sure, we’re trying everything we can, from every angle, working with her legal representative, her representatives, elected leaders, the administration. Just everyone in our ecosystem tries and finds a way to get her home as safe and fast as possible. ”
How independent is the judicial system in Russia? Putin’s top opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, is jailed again, after being found guilty of embezzlement in trials that international watchdogs have declared flawed, and Amnesty International. identified Navalny as a prisoner of conscience. He was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichuk in 2020, prompting Western governments to impose sanctions on Russia.
Navalny was recently sentenced to an additional five years in prison.
This is a government that has no problem setting an example of a celebrity, and those working to free Griner are acutely aware of that. But at some point, you have to admit that silent diplomacy hasn’t worked, and finally, earlier this week, some within Griner’s inner circle have been vocal about Griner’s plight.
Many female basketball players spend their time off playing abroad. They played in Israel, Turkey, China, Italy and Russia, and often in various countries throughout their careers. The money is good, the fans care, and the pay balances with what has traditionally been below par in the WNBA. (Though that amount has increased a lot since the final collective agreement was agreed in 2019).
But the stability of a world that allows that kind of free travel is changing. Russia has strong drug laws and visitors must obey local laws. However, it may also be true that Griner’s arrest seems like a politically motivated joke, given that the US has discussed imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia. At the time of Griner’s arrest, the Olympics were underway, and here’s the top headline from The New York Times: “Tensions in Ukraine increased as the West accused Russia of lying about the withdrawal of troops.”
There was a time when an LGBTQIA player with a size 17 shoe and killer block could choose her offseason team by contract size. But the world is shrinking for those players. Safety is an issue more than simply walking home late at night. For those of Griner’s generation, it is hard to imagine that the possibility of free movement could be limited, that the human rights we have taken for granted may not always be present.
However, we have seen the plight of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player was restricted from moving after she posted on social media that a Chinese official had had inappropriate sex with her. During the Beijing Olympics, Shuai was finally released to the public, but was kept under wraps from speaking to the WTA and under intense scrutiny. WTA told Deadspin that, so far, they are not allowed to speak with Shuai.
In that case, the WTA also approached the matter with caution, before severing economic ties with China through sponsorship and domestic tournaments. It’s an expensive stand, but a morally profound one. How can a tournament that started out in favor of women stand by and watch a player they fear can’t speak and move freely?
The truth is, what could have been a situation that could have been quietly resolved by union officials and agents, was more likely even in the case of Griner.
The rules of participation have changed. The diplomatic goodwill that should be respected is frayed. Instead, the message that Griner’s release will send to an international audience is no greater than the show of strength with which she continues to be imprisoned. Asking quietly won’t change that, and probably won’t ask out loud either.