It’s March. Between the NCAA’s “March Madness,” the NFL’s scouting combine and free agency, and the NBA nearing its homestretch — it is also Women’s History Month. It’s a time when companies roll out corporate social media posts and ads commending women and their vast contributions to society. That is what makes what I will type next all the more mind-boggling. On March 5, the New York Times reported that WNBA star Brittney Griner was being detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges. Although the exact date of her arrest hasn’t been disclosed to the public, the former AP Player of the Year was in custody for at least three weeks before the news hit mainstream media stateside. The 6’9″ Phoenix Mercury center was going through security at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when authorities found a vape pen with hashish oil in her bag.
WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia last month at a Moscow airport after a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges. Footage released Saturday shows the WNBA star going through security at a Moscow airport, and her luggage being searched. pic.twitter.com/Tuubab8Oko
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 6, 2022
With the conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensifying, all U.S. citizens in Russia were urged to leave the country expeditiously. A “Do Not Travel” advisory was also issued by the State Department the same day of the NYT report. Hashish oil is otherwise known as cannabis oil and contains THC, CBD and other cannabinoids; possession carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. The initial customs report simply stated that the individual apprehended was a player for a U.S. women’s basketball team. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, confirmed her identity and issued the following statement:
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA. As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
With the political climate between the U.S. and Russia becoming more and more volatile, we should indeed be concerned for the safety of the two-time Olympic gold medalist. The whole situation has spurred a number of conversations. For example, why was the former Baylor star in Russia to begin with? What is the WNBA and NBA doing about it? More glaringly, why is this story not plastered all over every single sports and political news channel?
For starters, Griner was in Russia playing basketball — as she has done every WNBA offseason since 2014. She competes with the UMMC Ekaterinburg team, having last played with them Jan. 29, 2022. The league took a two-week break in early February for FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments, which offers a bit of insight when it comes to determining Griner’s arrest date. It’s a common occurrence for WNBA players to compete overseas when the league breaks annually. Simply put, money talks and playing abroad often garners a larger payday than playing stateside. The earning gap between the NBA and WNBA has long been a topic of debate and — despite being the most visible women’s hoops league in the world — the “W” has a long way to go to compete financially with other women’s professional leagues. Griner is a WNBA champion and 7-time All-Star who led the league in scoring twice, among many other accolades. However, the $1 million that she makes each season in Russia is nearly four times her salary with the Phoenix Mercury. The maximum base salary for a WNBA player currently sits at $228,000. When news of her detainment was announced on Saturday, the WNBA disclosed that more than a dozen of its players were playing in Russia and Ukraine this offseason but were able to leave and return to the U.S. as of March 5.
When news of Griner’s arrest broke, the Mercury, WNBA and its players association all issued statements.
Phoenix Mercury: “We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia,” the Phoenix Mercury said at the time. “We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”
WNBAP: “We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of the 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S.
The WNBA’s statement was a bit more concise: “Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
Many are wondering about the very limited action from a league the Houston native has significantly contributed to. In addition to her 2014 title, she has led the league in scoring twice (as aforementioned in this article), in blocks eight times, was named to the All-WNBA First Team and All-WNBA Second Team three times each, and won Defensive Player of the Year twice en route to being named to the league’s 25th anniversary team. Well, there’s a theory that the WNBA — from executives to players — are hesitant to speak out publicly in fear that doing so may complicate efforts to get their friend and teammate back to the States. However, it would be remiss not to mention that there could be a degree of culpability on the part of the W. There’s a reason that their biggest stars feel they have to travel to actually make the money that they deserve. Back in 2015, Griner’s teammate and living legend Diana Taurasi forewent the WNBA season to accept a $1.5 million contract from UMMC Ekaterinburg. Meanwhile, the New York Liberty was fined half a million dollars and threatened with team termination for chartering private flights for its players last season.
With that being said, could you imagine the outcry if, say, Tom Brady or LeBron James were in this situation? There is not one channel or sports website that would not dedicate around-the-clock coverage until they were brought back home. While most of the statements issued echo the sentiment of concern for Griner’s safety and well-being, the road appears to be long and winding. As Russia deals with retaliatory sanctions, the reality of the famous center’s race, appearance, and sexual orientation come into play as the Russian government has proven that it is not an ally of the LGBTQ community. Normally, she would at least have the protection of the team, but UMMC’s huge corporate position may not hold much weight if the Russians view the star center as a potential pawn in its communication with U.S. President Joe Biden. President Vladamir Putin proved as much back in 2019 when he used an Israeli woman arrested for possession of cannabis to gain control over an area of Jerusalem. Most of those who would ordinarily be of assistance to Americans in the country have left as President Joe Biden continues to rain down sanctions and other financial squeezes to halt Putin’s attacks on Ukraine.
While not referring to Griner by name, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserts that the U.S. is “ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia.” He further explained that he could not divulge too much information due to privacy concerns. While the Olympian’s family, friends and colleagues continue to pray for her safe return home, her case serves as a stark reminder that the most disrespected person in America is still the Black woman. Look no further than the lack of coverage Griner has received while the entire country was bombarded with the missing persons case of Gabby Petito. We’re not saying to ignore non-Black victims, but we are saying to acknowledge and advocate for the Black woman as well.