Americans—and the world—rallied hard around the #FreeBritney movement. But what about efforts to liberate another Brittney, a Black and queer WNBA player imprisoned in Russia?
In the month and a half since Brittney Griner’s arrest for allegedly carrying weed vape cartridges in her luggage at a Moscow airport, fans have wondered why the U.S. hasn’t brought more attention to the detention of one of its top basketball players.
Outside of a few politicians calling for Griner’s safe return and an initial round of statements from the WNBA and the U.S. State Department, weeks have gone by without substantial updates on the matter. Even Griner’s wife has stayed relatively quiet and asked for privacy.
The silence, however, may actually be by design.
“What we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that [Russia] could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation and war,” WNBA legend Lisa Leslie told the “I Am Athlete” podcast, which was released in its entirety Monday.
Leslie didn’t specify where the instructions came from, and she admitted that the hushed approach isn’t what’s happening behind closed doors. But the measured reaction to Griner’s detention is a tried and true strategy for negotiating the safe return of high profile people overseas, according to Tara Sonenshine, who worked in national security and foreign affairs under both President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Factor in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which the U.S. and its allies have strongly disavowed, and leaders negotiating Griner’s return are likely keeping a tight lid on any effort to help her.
“When an American is detained overseas, it is a very complex, complicated, delicate, and heart-wrenching situation for the individual, for the family, and for our country,” Sonenshine told VICE News. “But all of these cases have a quiet phase and a public phase. The timelines vary depending on the situation.”
“All of these cases have a quiet phase and a public phase. The timelines vary depending on the situation.”
Griner, a seven-time All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison after pleading not guilty to smuggling a “significant amount” of narcotics into the nation. Russia recently announced that she’ll stay in jail until at least mid-May.
So far, Griner appears to be safe and healthy, although the bed in her prison cell is too short for the 6’ 9” player. But she is in danger. The Russian government has proven overtly anti-LGBTQ for years. Gay marriage and any “propaganda” promoting non-hetero relationships are banned. And the discrimination against the nation’s Black minority as well as its racist treatment of President Obama makes a clear statement.
Even if Griner does get released, the U.S. also still has to figure out how to get her home.
“Planes are grounded, so there's logistics in this situation that are even dicier,” Sonensine said.
Texas Rep. Colin Allred, a Democrat and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is one of the few politicians who’s been vocal about Griner’s plight. He’s been in touch with Russia’s state department, and he’s worried about Griner getting caught in the ongoing political battle.
"Right now, we want to see her treated normally, as anyone else would be, and come home as soon as possible," Allred told TMZ earlier this month. "We have to make sure that she's treated as anyone else would be and she's not a symbol or a hostage or anything like that."
Hillary Clinton and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have also joined the #FreeBrittney movement, and Canadian director Ben Proudfoot, who won an Oscar Sunday night for his documentary The Queen of Basketball, asked President Joe Biden to bring Griner home in his acceptance speech.
But many others have blamed sexism or racism for the lack of attention on Griner.
“Black women, from missing persons cases to victims of crime, are not treated with the same urgency as white women and other groups. We demand that lawmakers hold Griner in the same regard as they would any other sports icon,” reads a petition to secure Griner’s freedom on Change.org that has nearly met its goal of 75,000 signatures.
“If it was Tom Brady being held captive, as New York Magazine posited, would there be radio silence across sports media?”
(The disparity between male and female basketball players—and their salaries—also has a role in the fight to bring Griner home. By playing for the Russian team basketball UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason, Griner made four times her American salary, according to the Associated Press.)
There are three reasons for the “quiet phase” in situations like Griner’s detention, according to Sonenshine: a desire to protect the privacy of the person, not revealing how important the detained individual is to the U.S., and ensuring that ongoing sensitive negotiations aren’t compromised by giving a country’s authorities a reason to abuse the person in custody.
“I wish it were cleaner and clearer, but it’s very murky,” Sonenshine said. “When you have the fog of war and the fog of detention. It is enormously frightening.”
Sonenshine compared Griner’s incarceration to Haleh Esfandiari’s arrest in Iran back in 2007. Suspected of espionage, the Iranian-American academic was detained by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence in January 2007 while applying for a replacement for her travel documents that she was robbed of just a few days prior.
Due to Iran’s strained relationship with the U.S., ongoing interrogations were kept a total secret, and Esfandiari’s situation didn’t become public until May 2007 when she was taken to prison. After four months in jail, Esfandiari was eventually released in August and returned to the U.S. the next month.
“You could compare that case to this one because we didn’t have diplomatic relations with that government,” Sonenshine said. “Here, we still have diplomatic relations with Moscow, but they are obviously strained by this war.”
Griner has been in a Moscow jail since she was stopped by Russian customs and arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17. A 50-second video clip released March 5 shows a drug dog briefly sniffing Griner but then letting her pass. The footage then cuts to security officials searching Griner’s bag at the end of the luggage conveyor.
Griner isn’t the only American detained in Russia either. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was arrested in Russia back in 2019 for allegedly attacking two police officers after a drunk night out. And Paul Whelan, another Marine veteran was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. Both cases are being actively worked on by the U.S., although the war in Ukraine has likely stalled efforts.
For Griner’s concerned fans, family, and friends waiting for the appropriate time to petition and rally around Griner has been difficult.
“Do we know if that’s the right thing to do or not?” Leslie said on the podcast. “It’s heartbreaking for all of us, that’s the feeling of it. You want to do more and you think ‘should we all use a social media platform to get behind it or not?’ This is the first time we’re in this situation and we don’t know what to do.”
But rather than posting on social media or protesting, they should appeal to key players, according to Sonenshine. To up the ante, people can directly contact members of the Senate from Griner’s state of Texas as well as put pressure on organizations like the WNBA, NBA, and USA Basketball. It’s also important that the American press continue to ask White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about Griner’s detention.
“There are many players in this unfortunate drama, and they need to work together. And that includes the WNBA, her family, her legal representation, the State Department, her member of Congress and the public,” she said. “The key is to get everybody rowing in the same direction to secure her relief.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.