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Brittney Griner’s Trial in Russia

Foreign Policy Brief #141 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | July 18, 2022

Header photo taken from: The New York Times

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WNBA champion Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia seems to be a political pawn. This could have been wholly avoided if women were paid fairly in sports in the U.S.

Photo taken from: Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Policy Summary

The WNBA is the premier basketball league in the world for professional female basketball players and has been at the center of American media attention due to the trial of Brittney Griner in Russia. Brittney Griner is  an American basketball player, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Griner was arrested quickly after the Russian invasion into Ukraine; with critics of the Putin regime and war suggesting that she was arrested as a political pawn. Her charges are regarding the use of hashish oil which is illegal in Russia.

This debacle has involved the highest levels of government, including the White House, and much commentary from the sports world, including from the likes of Lebron James. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is personally involved, according to reports over the last few months; and even tweeted July 7th that American “officials again attended Brittney Griner’s trial today and delivered to her a letter from President Biden. We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones.” His commentary and that of many news outlets is calling out the topic of “wrongful detention” as a practice of the Russian government.

Policy Analysis

The charges against Brittney Griner specifically are aimed at her use of vaping hashish oil. She was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport. According to a Newsweek report, the charges of possessing and transporting hashish oil could lead to up to ten years imprisonment. Her lawyers, in her Russian trial, explained that the drugs she was in possession of were prescribed for her and they presented her doctor’s note to treat some pain she was experiencing. 

According to the Associated Press, Griner plead guilty to the charges knowing that she was in possession of the drugs; however, she explained that she was not intending to break the laws of Russia but was just caught up in packing quickly to get to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian basketball league.

Recent criticism of the trial has drawn attention to the pay disparity between the American NBA and WNBA, as the only reason that Griner (and other female players) travel to countries like Russia to play in the US off-season is to continue making money. The disparity in pay between the NBA and WNBA is stark – with the top players in the WNBA making around $500,000 while top NBA players, like Lebron James, make many millions of dollars per season (and do not need to play internationally to make more money). 

Griner is one of the top players in the WNBA, with enough accolades to rival many of the male stars of the NBA, it cannot be ignored that pay disparity is a major contributing factor in the circumstances leading to Griner’s incarceration in Russia. It is not an unreasonable  to suggest that if WNBA players made more money, then Griner would never have needed to travel to Russia to play in the first place. UMMC Ekaterinburg, according to the Boston Globe, was paying Griner more than $1 million to play for their team, which is owned by a Putin-associated Oligarch. NBC Sports reported in May that Griner was paid just under $230,000 for her last season in the United States; while USA Today reported that the average salary for an NBA player is $7.3 million.

 


Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer labeled the “Merchant of Death” who once inspired a Hollywood movie is back in the headlines with speculation around a return to Moscow in a prisoner exchange involving Brittney Griner.

Photo taken from: Apichart Weerawong / AP

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The political timing of the arrest and trial of Brittney Griner does lend itself to being looked at with a skeptical lens, and Griner has been referred to as a political pawn of the Russian state government. All of this happened right before the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Russia would have obviously been looking for any leverage or bargaining chips to use during the war for other political purposes that would help them respond to American policy in Ukraine.

According to the New York Times, there are approximately 50 Americans held by overseas adversaries for political purposes or as hostages. This number includes those held by Russia and other nation-state actors, but also non-state actors such as terrorist or extremist groups. 

Many members of the Biden Administration have referred to Griner’s case, and Paul Whelan’s case, another American held by Russia, as being “wrongfully detained”. The New York Times explains that  ‘wrongfully detained’ means being “held by a foreign government for the purposes of influencing U.S. policy or extracting political or economic concessions from Washington”.

 

President Obama set a precedent, in 2015, that does not allow the government to get involved with paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners, as a way to attempt to disincentivize wrongful detentions; however, there are many examples post-2015 of swaps and exchanges occurring to free Americans, including from Russian hands. 

Over two weeks ago, The Washington Post, reported that the Russian government was interested in a prisoner exchange involving Griner for Viktour Bout or “The Merchant of Death”; who is serving a 25 year sentence in the United States for selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Brittney Griner’s next hearing is set to take place on July 26th and, according to ESPN, her detention has been authorized by the Russian government until December 20th. This leads some to believe that the trial could be a long process for Brittney Griner to secure her freedom from Russia; however, her lawyers believe the trial could be over and resolved as early as August.

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