The Case of Brittney Griner: the Imprisoned Basketball Player

Olympic medalist Brittney Griner was sentenced in Russia to nine years in prison after being arrested in February on drug possession charges.

Brittney Griner

Photo: TW-brittneygriner

LatinAmerican Post | Onofre Zambrano

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Leer en español: El caso de Brittney Griner: la basquetbolista encarcelada

The ordeal for Brittney Griner began on February 17 when she was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Agents found vape cartridges in her luggage containing cannabis oil, an illegal substance in Russia, but which the athlete claimed to use for medicinal purposes.

A few days ago, “BG”, as it is also known in the sporting context, was sentenced in a Russian court to nine years in prison for drug possession charges. Immediately, President Joe Biden described the sanction as “unacceptable” and demanded that the Russian authorities release him immediately.

In July, the player pleaded guilty to transporting drugs in her luggage. But her detention, made public after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, took on political overtones from the start. The player's conviction could end a prisoner swap that involves freeing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as “the merchant of death.”

Who Is Brittney Griner?

The lanky 31-year-old is 6-foot-6, weighs 200 pounds (ca. 91 kg) and wears a size 17 men's shoe. You might find this hard to believe, but her hands are a bit wider than Los Angeles Lakers' male basketball star, LeBron James.

Griner, known as BG by the Phoenix Mercury fans and considered the best offense in professional women's basketball in the United States, conquered her first battle as soon as she joined the WNBA. She was also the first player in the US women's professional league to reveal that she is gay.

"Before Griner, there was a shadow over the league, where the practice of 'don't say gay' was encouraged. But she just said, fuck that, this is who I am," Tamryn Spruill, a sports columnist, told CNN in Spanish. If she wasn't entered the WNBA when she was only 22 years old, she would have followed in his father's footsteps and become a police officer.

Born in Houston (Texas), Griner earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where she led the team to a national championship. She has won two Olympic gold medals, the Most Valuable Player title in the American Women's Basketball League, plus WNBA and EuroLeague championships.

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She has also been a pioneer off the court after declaring her homosexuality at the age of 22, at the time she entered professional sports. That year, she became the first selection in the WNBA draft round and, shortly after, became the first openly gay athlete – of any sex – to be sponsored by the sports firm Nike.

The Sentence in Details

In addition to the nine years, the Court ordered the basketball player to pay a fine of one million rubles (US$16,300) and urged her to serve her prison term in a penal colony. Now, Griner's lawyers are working on the appeal after calling the verdict "absolutely unreasonable."

The defenders claim that the judges ignored all the defense evidence, including Griner's guilty plea, one of the athlete's resources to receive a lesser sentence. However, the Court assured that the measure is reasonable, taking into account that the foreign athlete has already accumulated five months in prison.

A knee injury forced Griner to be in a wheelchair for four months, and that was the exact reason he used the substance. Specifically, he used cannabis for inflamed knee joints and also for the ankle. The athlete insisted that she did not use it before tournaments, precisely to avoid disqualification.

Griner also wrote a letter to Biden before pleading guilty to request his intervention in the case. "I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, my family, my friends, my Olympic jersey or any other achievement. I am terrified that I will stay here forever," she wrote in the letter, according  to a BBC report.

Griner traveled to Russia at the beginning of the year to play with the UMMC Ekaterinburg EuroLeague team, where he had been a member since 2014, always during the offseason in the WNBA. For most American players, Russia is a good alternative to increase their income, because incredible as it may seem, in that country they earn five times more than in the WNBA.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams, prompting the WNBA to recall its players. It was right there, on that return trip, that Russia's Federal Customs Service reported in a press release that a sniffer dog had authorities search the carry-on luggage of an American female player and that they had found e-cigarette cartridges with drugs.

Wrongful Arrest

The US government has offered Russia a prisoner swap that includes Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan - sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison- for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The latter is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States. The proposal still awaits a response; an answer that may be Griner's last hope.

After Griner was detained and asked to open her bags at Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17, the athlete testified that no lawyers were present and that her rights were not explained to her. This, according to Russian law, must occur within the first three hours of arrest.

Contrary to that, the giants sports star claims that she was urged to sign confusing documents for her, which forced her to use Google Translate on her phone to try to understand what was happening. For reasons such as these, Griner's stop, search, and arrest were described as “improper” by one of his defense attorneys, Alexander Boykov. The lawyer added that he hopes the appeal will produce some justice and Griner can at least be sent back to her country, with better treatment for her current condition.