Brittney Griner’s detainment sheds light on gender inequality

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Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Here’s a novel idea for Joe Biden, the president of the United States, as WNBA star  Brittney Griner pleads for freedom and expresses her fear that she may never return home, bring her home. Terror, shock, and fear engulf the 31-year-old as she sits locked up in a Russian jail where she is being held hostage wondering whether she would be released from detention.

The story of her detainment won’t die because now her emotional plea seeps deeper into our national consciousness, her handwritten letter delivered to the White House on Monday morning garnered the attention that goes far beyond the game. How long it will take for her to come home remains unknown but hopefully now America will listen to her. The sad part is, that America largely chooses to ignore her, so why would anyone care if she’s a prisoner in Russia?

In Griner’s first public words since being arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17, she urged Biden to get her out of Russia, where she’s been held for the last four months. The cries for help were heard as she implored the Biden administration to secure her release. As months have passed from the time the Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling narcotic drugs in a significant amount, Griner feels hopeless, powerless, and helpless.

“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” writes Griner.

This, though, is what happens when you make poor choices, especially in a foreign country, and Russia of all places. This mess is of her making, not Biden’s, not America’s, not even Russia’s. However, no human is perfect, not even Griner, who is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic champion, WNBA champion, and NCAA champion. But the entire situation is a microcosm of where America has failed and what it needs to do to ensure the rights of all Americans. The painful reality is that she put herself in a situation where really bad stuff can happen. And while her supporters are urging U.S. officials to do whatever is necessary to make sure she returns home swiftly and safely, her act of bad judgment doing something illegal in a hostile country provoked strong responses from her detractors.

You might remember, that Griner got arrested a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the message delivered by Russia was transparent. Through their actions, the Russians have shown that they don’t have any intention of releasing her at least not anytime soon. Everyone in the basketball world is asking for the Biden administrator to strike a deal and free her after she’s been “wrongfully detained.”

Yet to her critics and those who are demonizing her for one bad mistake, Griner is sadly guilty by public opinion and now this will follow her the rest of her career, even if and when Russia finally lets her go. Being imprisoned in another country, however, amounts to a series of harsh reality checks, one stinging hit after another one. Let this be a great learning experience for her. By now the lesson is clear.

She is an immensely popular player in women’s sports, but because she plays in the WNBA and not the NBA, she’s undervalued. She is one of women’s basketball’s most recognizable figures, and because she’s in Russia and not the U.S, she’s been used as leverage.

Not to belittle her. But what the hell was Brittney thinking to bring drugs into a foreign country? It was incredibly foolish and reckless and potentially damaging to carry a backpack and suitcase containing prohibited substances.

Come on, Brittney. Smh.

Griner’s status as a high-profile athlete could make her a political pawn and she could be swapped for Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “Merchant Death,” who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has urged the U.S. government to release Griner from Russia and criticized the administration’s efforts to negotiate her wife’s release. The WNBA All-Star and her wife planned to speak for the first time in months on their wedding anniversary. The couple arranged a phone call through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but since it was over the weekend, a staffer wasn’t at the desk to patch the call through. Griner’s lawyer informed her wife that Brittney attempted to call her 11 times.

“I have zero trust in my government right now,” Cherelle told Associated Press at the time. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home?”

The sobering truth is that her case should illustrate how female athletes are valued in the United States. The perception is that Russia places a higher value on players such as Griner than the teams in her own country do. This is getting scary — in a hurry — for her. Griner, who identifies herself as a Black queer woman, was arrested in a country that is hostile toward LGBTQ people. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, signed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2013, the country passed a “gay propaganda” law that banned distributing information on LGBTQ issues.

The reality now is what it could be indefinitely. The truth is complex. For the last few months, we forgot that she was still a prisoner. Where is Biden? Where is Secretary of State Antony Blinken? These are questions being asked not only by Griner’s wife but also by her supporters and WNBA and NBA players. If this is about negotiating a deal, and Russia is keeping her confined to a prison cell, then stepping up their efforts to free Griner is imperative. But she surely could have made better choices to avoid a situation like this one. And now the U.S. government is forced to intervene to remedy the situation and try to bring her home safely and peacefully.

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