Behind Russian bars, how Brittney Griner went from pro athlete to political pawn

She’s a double Olympic gold medallist, back-to-back championship winner and multiple-award winning athlete.

But now, Brittney Griner’s numerous sporting achievements have been overshadowed by an ugly judgment in the Russian courts: the 31-year-old is now facing a nine-and-a-half-year jail term after she pleaded guilty to drugs possession and smuggling. 

Griner, who insisted the breach of strict Russian laws was unintentional, was apprehended at a Moscow airport in February for what authorities claimed was a ‘large-scale transportation’ of cannabis into Russia – she had vape capsules containing less than one gram of medicinal cannabis oil in her bag.

As well as her hefty prison sentence, Brittney has also been asked to pay a fine of one million rubles (around £13,700). US officials have condemned the particularly harsh sentencing, with one deeming the result ‘a miscarriage of justice’.

There are fears that the WNBA (Woman’s National Basketball Association) player has been caught in the crossfire in America and Russia’s worsening relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the basketball player’s freedom collateral damage as tensions continue to mount.

Now, with her appeal having been rejected by Russia, Griner’s fight to finally come home seems to be even more difficult than previously imagined.

The Phoenix Mercury player was built to be a basketball star. Born in Houston, Texas in 1990, she found shooting hoops to be her solace, keeping her focused when she struggled at school.

‘I guess I started feeling different when everybody started telling me I was,’ she explained in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin. ‘I was flat and thin, my voice was low.’ Children picked on her for her height and appearance: ‘She must be a boy. She’s not really a girl.’

It was a difficult time for Brittney. ‘I’d go to my bedroom and cry,’ she told Elle magazine in 2013. ‘Just thinking, like, “Why am I even here? Why am I even alive?”’

However, it was in high school that Brittney got her big break basketball-wise, with the sport giving her ‘a purpose and a passion’. Towering over her teammates at 6 ft tall when she was just 14 (she’s now an astonishing 6 ft 8, one of the tallest women in the WNBA), she was a star in the making, able to block, shoot and score with ease.

It was Brittney’s immense height which feeds into one of her signature moves: a slam dunk. During her junior season playing basketball at high school, a compilation of all her best dunks went viral on YouTube, leading Brittney to meet NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

That was merely the start for Brittney, who had already been touted by the Woman’s Basketball Association as ‘High School Player of the Year’. Playing basketball for Baylor University in Texas, her impeccable abilities to block and dunk saw the team as a towering force in the league, and landed Brittney yet more accolades: she won Division I Defensive Player of the year three years in a row, as well as the 2012 Honda Sports Award for basketball and the 2013 ESPY Award for Best Woman Athlete.

‘If she stays on track, I will bet that she’ll be one of the best players to ever play the game,’ declared Ganon Baker, who headed the Nike Skills Academy for girls and trained the likes of NBA’s LeBron James. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever said that about anybody.’

Despite her early success, Brittney – who identifies as gay – was not entirely happy. Baylor University, enshrined in strict Baptist values, considered homosexual relationships a violation of their code of conduct. Brittney, for the first three years of university, was forced to keep in the closet. It was something that bothered her immensely, particularly as her prominence in basketball saw Baylor get more money and an elevated profile. ‘I spent a lot of time wondering if they supported Brittney Griner the person or just Brittney Griner the basketball player,’ the sports star wrote in her memoir.

When she reached her senior year, and was well on her way to becoming one of Baylor’s most decorated athletes ever, Brittney had a ‘screw it’ moment, choosing to come out on live TV after she was selected as a top draft pick of the season.

‘I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality,’ she said. ‘If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s okay, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.’

It was a monumental moment in WNBA, who at the time, only had one openly out player. Brittney’s frank discussion of her sexuality was the catalyst in galvanising the sport to be more LGBTQ+ friendly, with the league then choosing to host its first nationally televised Pride games in 2014; the game took place in Phoenix, where Brittney was now based, playing for Phoenix Mercury. 

Since coming out, she has had two fairly high-profile relationships after turning professional: fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson, whom she shares twin girls, and university classmate, Cherelle Watson: Brittney’s now wife.

While it cannot be denied that that Brittney is a trailblazer and an immensely talented athlete, her pay packet fails to reflect just how skilled she is. Women’s basketball is poorly paid when compared to its male counterpart: the average NBA base salary this season is about $5.4 million, compared with about $120,600 for the WNBA – an astonishing 44 times difference.

It’s little wonder, then, that many women’s basketball players choose to head abroad in the off-seasons to supplement their incomes, with Brittney having played for Zhejisng Golden Bulls as well as her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Nearly half of all WNBA players (70 out of 144) decided to play for another country during the winter months – with a dozen playing for Russia or Ukraine during that period.

We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists.

It’s easy to see why heading over to Russia would be so appealing for women’s basketball players. Due to the structure of funding there, with some teams owned by wealthy oligarchs keen to chase trophies over profit, salaries are much higher. While Brittney’s salary has never been confirmed publicly, Diana Taurasi, who also played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, was offered $1.5 million per season in 2015.

‘We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade,’ Diana said at the time.

In addition to much higher pay, WNBA players have reported having much better treatment in general while playing in Russia, with reports of club players being put up in luxury accommodation and being lavished with gifts for performing well. While the WNBA has adjusted base salaries for players, Brittney’s turmoil in Russia may well galvanise the league to pay its sports stars with a more satisfactory salary.

Indeed, a significant change in pay is something Brittney herself is all in favour for, according to wife Cherelle.

‘Brittney would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas,’ she told ABC News. ‘She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years since she’s been pro, and she misses all that stuff. Just because, you know, she can’t make enough money in the WNBA, like, to sustain her life.’ 

It seems, for the most part, Brittney is a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, having previously played for Russia with no issues for the past eight years. Her arrest came just two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a conflict that has rumbled on for six months and shows no signs of slowing. Russia’s actions have led to hugely worsening diplomatic relations across the world, with America, the UK and large swathes of the European Union applying sanctions to curb the conflict.

Brittney has remained in detention ever since her arrest, with the length of her pre-trial detention repeatedly being extended by Russian authorities. Politicians in the States have vocally condemned the decision to keep Brittney behind bars, with some believing American’s sanctions against Russia may be fuelling Brittney’s imprisonment.

Texas congressman Colin Allred, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was personally working with the State Department to accelerate Griner’s return to America.

‘Every day for anyone being held, particularly being held overseas, is a lifetime,’ he said. ‘I recognise that for her friends and family, this must be an incredibly difficult time. And for her, I’m sure the uncertainty about what’s happening is probably just terrible. And so, hopefully, whatever happens, we can get this moving quickly and get her out.’

Fellow congressman Joaquin Castro added: ‘This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining and imprisoning US citizens. US citizens are not political pawns.’

Other congresspeople expressed concerns about Russia’s often negative reception towards the LGBTQ+ community, which Brittney is a prominent figurehead of.

 ‘Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws,’ Los Angeles congressman John Garamendi explained, adding the current frosty relations between the two countries certainly isn’t helping Brittney’s battle.

Celebrities have thrown their weight behind the ongoing campaign to support Brittney. NBA legend LeBron James, comedian Amy Schumer and billionaire Elon Musk have called for her release – with Musk also calling for people in the States convicted for non-violent drugs crimes to get a reprieve. 

The WNBA has been keen to offer its support to ensure Brittney’s return home. A statement posted to their Twitter account reads: ‘Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and wellbeing. On behalf of the 144 [the number of players in the WNBA], we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the US.’

Statement from the WNBPA regarding Brittney Griner. pic.twitter.com/Bw9sVCJAlX

They have also circulated her contact details amongst teammates and players to offer support, with Brittney responding sporadically.

Despite her helplessness in the situation, the player’s notes are somewhat reassuring to receive from WNBA players.

‘She jokes in her letters. I don’t know how she does it with what she’s going through,’ said Los Angeles Sparks forward Amanda Zahui B when speaking to press. ‘She’s an amazing soul. She brings light in a situation like this.’

Brittney’s positivity may have stemmed from her belief that her incarceration was only going to be short-term, arguing it was human error that cannabis oil had ended up in her bag.

While she conceded on trial that she knew that cannabis was illegal in Russia, she added that the oil was there after she packed ‘in a hurry.’

A medical examination that was submitted in evidence showed that Brittney had been using the cannabis oil after it was prescribed by medics for chronic pain that had been sustained through numerous ankle injuries. A drugs test also showed she was clean. However, Russian officials maintained that changes to drugs laws in the States had no bearing on Russian law.

The US had previously been desperately fighting for Brittney’s release before her case went to trial. After declaring her as ‘wrongfully detained’ in May, American officials have been openly critical of Russia’s approach to Brittney’s case.

There were reports of a prisoner swap to enable Brittney’s release. Initial negotiations saw Russians request notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Brittney and another US prisoner, former Marine Paul Whelan – however, a change of terms meant the deal quickly fell through.

According to CNN, Russian agents used an informal means of communication with the US government, to also request the release of convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov, who is currently serving out the rest of his sentence in Germany.

‘Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,’ spokesperson for the National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, told the news outlet. ‘It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.’

With pressure mounting, Brittney’s wife Chanelle has been communicating with Joe Biden, hoping the President of the United States may be able to throw his gravitas behind proceedings and ensure Brittney’s return.

‘The President called Cherelle to reassure her he is working on her release as soon as possible,’ a statement released on social media read. ‘The President offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to get Brittney home.’

The initial verdict of Brittney’s trial has left the basketball star in limbo. It was an emotional time for her, her lawyers said, as she saw teammates for the first time in over a hundred days as two served as her character witnesses.

Evgeniia Beliakova, who plays with Brittney at UMMC Ekaterinburg, was one person who supported her teammate in court.

‘Brittney has always been a very good teammate, so my role here is just to be with her, to support her,’ she told the Associated Press. ‘We miss her very much, we miss her energy.’

The trial also exposed problematic elements around Brittney’s arrest, with Brittney claiming on the stand that she was not given full translations by her interpreter, instead having to rely on an app to communicate with the Russian-speaking officials.

‘My rights were not explained to me,’ Brittney told the court. ‘Nobody explained anything to me.’

Brittney entered a guilty plea at the stand. It was something she was advised to do, as Russian courts have a reputation for being unduly harsh; a report by Reuters found that in over 99% of cases, courts issue a guilty verdict. Russian law also permits acquittals to be overturned.

‘I’d like to plead guilty, your honour,’ she said through a translator. ‘But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.’

However, the sentence laid at Brittney’s door exceeded expectations, with a nine-and-a-half year sentence teetering near the maximum 10 years issued for drugs related offenses.

‘She’s devastated,’ Brittney’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told People magazine. ‘She is very upset and she’s honestly quite shocked, so she needs to digest what happened today.

‘We are really disappointed and very much surprised by this decision by the court.’

The ruling was described as a ‘miscarriage of justice’ by Elizabeth Rood, who serves as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, further steeling the US’s resolve to fight for Brittney’s release.

Just hours after her conviction, the Phoenix Mercury team had a game. Brittney should have been featuring on the court, but with the news that she may be staying in Russian detention for another nine years, the mood amongst her teammates was grim. A minute’s silence was held before the match commenced, with both teams and the audience spending that short time to reflect on Brittney’s ongoing plight.

‘Nobody even wanted to play today,’ Mercury player Skylar Diggins-Smith said at a post-match conference. ‘How are we even supposed to approach the game and approach the court with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the game?’

And after a hearing that lasted less than 30 minutes, Brittney’s appeal was unceremoniously thrown out by Russian court without any changes made to her sentence. The ruling was described by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to be ‘a sham’.

With her basketball career on hold for the moment, Brittney now has to learn the rules to a new game: a waiting game, playing as a very human bargaining chip in an increasingly bitter war of diplomacy.

And facing down the barrel of nearly a decade in prison, Brittney’s fear is palpable.

‘I realise you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,’ she said in a handwritten letter delivered to Joe Biden.

‘I’m terrified I might be here forever.’

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