Brittany Griner’s detention in Russia should be the biggest story in the sports world right now. If you haven’t heard about it — which wouldn’t be all that surprising, considering how sparsely it has been covered — the WNBA star was arrested last month after Russian customs officials found vape cartridges containing CBD oil in her luggage. The information wasn’t made public until more than two weeks after her arrest. She now faces up to 10 years in prison.
Since the initial coverage, the sports world has been largely silent on the issue. Former WNBA star Lisa Leslie said recently that WNBA players were told “not to make a big fuss” about the issue, so Russian authorities couldn’t use Griner as a “pawn” amidst the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Even the US State Department and Griner’s attorneys have been largely silent on the issue.
The situation is obviously much more complicated in light of the atrocities in Ukraine, but it truly is dire for Griner. For one, we have no evidence of the veracity of the charges she faces. Russia isn’t exactly the gold standard for honesty and transparency. Even if we take the charges at face value, they make little sense. Griner was stopped for cartridges containing hashish oil, but she is being charged with “large scale transportation of drugs.” She is being charged with a crime that, in all likelihood, she did not commit.
Secondly, Griner has remained in jail for over a month now and won’t get a trial until May 19 at the earliest. Even when she gets to that point, there is little chance she faces a fair trial, especially since diplomatic relations between the US and Russia have deteriorated so much over the past several weeks. If convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison, with 5 of them potentially being spent at a labor camp.
Take a moment and imagine if LeBron James or Tom Brady were detained under similar circumstances. It would be headline news until they were released. Advocacy groups, international human rights organizations, and every other type of body imaginable would work tirelessly to secure their return. Griner’s situation only captured public attention for a few news cycles, and then everyone’s focus returned to March Madness and the NFL offseason.
My first thought was that this was because she is a black, queer woman convicted on a supposed drug charge. However, that doesn’t quite add up. Take, for instance, the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, the sprinter who was suspended from the Olympics last summer after testing positive for marijuana. Athletes from Patrick Mahomes to Megan Rapinoe took to social media to defend Richardson. Since Griner’s arrest, it has been crickets from most of these same athletes.
Perhaps they have remained silent because it is so far from home. Some may consider it insensitive to the innocent civilians who have been killed in Ukraine when Griner is relatively safe. They may truly believe, as Leslie said, that remaining silent and letting the experts do their job is the best way to secure Griner’s release, especially as diplomatic relations remain so tense.
Whatever the reason for their silence, it’s clear that it has not been working so far. This strategy may have been in the best interest of Griner a few weeks ago, but as she is potentially facing years in a Russian labor camp for a crime she didn’t commit, it’s hard to see how things could get much worse.
The sports community has a lot of power to sway public opinion and raise awareness. They have always banded together on social justice issues in the past, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ protest at the 1968 Olympics to the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
This time, though, the sports world is failing one of its own when she needs them most, and it’s absolutely inexcusable.