Let’s stop making Brittney Griner a hero. Yes, the 31-year old women’s pro basketball star has been treated badly by the Russian court. She brought less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia in February. Got caught. Pleaded guilty. And got slammed with a nine-year sentence in a Russian prison.
Do I feel bad for her? Yes. Do I feel the sentence is too harsh? Yes, but there’s a lot about Vladimir Putin’s country that I feel is too harsh. Just ask Ukraine. Do I want us to get Griner back home? Yes. Yes. Yes. But make no mistake about it, Griner is no hero. She made her own mess. And she has put her government into a difficult spot, doing it.
Sure, there was less than a gram of cannabis oil in her possession. But Griner herself says she was warned by the Biden administration not to go to Russia. She ignored the warning and went to Russia anyway. Griner has played basketball in Yekaterinburg for the last seven years. Grew to love the place. Lived there in the offseason when the WNBA season was finished. I get all that. But this time around, her government warned her not to go for a reason she chose to ignore. It should’ve been the time to either sit out this season or go play for another country.
I think Griner was set up by the Russians. They needed a high-profile hostage to swap for Viktor Bout. Bout is an arms trafficker, reputedly responsible for many deaths. The U.S. nabbed him in Thailand in 2008. Putin has been itching to get the notorious Bout back for years. But how? Here’s how … The Russians have American hostages other than Griner. Security consultant Paul Whelan, for one. Whelan was accused of spying in 2020. He is currently serving a 16-year sentence at hard labor. But in the high-stakes swaps for hostages between Russia and the United States, Whelan is not a big enough “fish” to land Bout in a swap, cruel as that is. No, Putin needed to land someone with some celebrity attached to his or her name. And along came Brittney Griner. “Welcome to my house,” said the Russian spider to the American fly.
Griner is perhaps the best-known female basketball player in America. Maybe the world. A star in the WNBA. During the offseason, some female pro basketball stars play overseas to supplement their income. WNBA players are paid substantially less than NBA players. Griner reportedly makes $227,000 per year and she’s the WNBA’s biggest star. LeBron probably spends more than that amount on shoes every year. Some people believe that this fact makes the issue one of pay equity. It doesn’t.
Although women’s basketball has come a long way, their players pale in popularity with males stars such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. Despite the endless hyping of the WNBA by the TV suits, ratings for women’s basketball lag far behind ratings for the men’s game. And that — not gender — is why there’s a disparity in salaries between leagues. But although Griner will never outshine LeBron in endorsements, she’s famous enough to be a top-tier hostage Putin needs to get Bout back.
Were the Russians tipped off that Griner would be carrying a small amount of cannabis oil in her suitcase? To me, that seems quite likely. It was no state secret that in the U.S., Griner had received medical authorization to use the oil for muscle soreness. So, the Russians must at least have guessed that Griner would be carrying cannabis oil when she arrived in Russia.
When she was caught, Griner claimed – -and still does – -that having the cannabis oil was “an honest mistake.” She says she forgot to remove the oil from her luggage before departing for Russia. The Russian judge didn’t buy it. And though Griner changed her plea to guilty and pleaded for leniency, she received a ridiculous sentence of 9½ years, including time served. Note: The sentence would have to be harsh to make the swap worthwhile. If you examine the Russian law on marijuana, you’ll understand what I mean.
Under Russian law, possession of up to six grams of cannabis is considered an administrative offense. The result is either a fine of 70 American dollars or 15 days’ imprisonment. Normally, over six grams is considered a criminal offense resulting in more severe punishment. Despite the fact that Griner had less than a gram in her possession, the Russian judge declared it a criminal offense subject to the much tougher penalty of 9½ years.
Because her infraction was ruled a criminal penalty, Griner has become a valuable enough pawn for Putin to dangle for Bout. The Biden administration has been placed under tremendous pressure to make the swap because of Griner’s celebrity. In an attempt to include Whelan in the deal, the Biden administration is trying to make a bad deal look better. But the Russians will undoubtedly wring every last ounce out of the hype surrounding Griner before agreeing to the deal. Some experts predict the haggling will go on for months before a swap is consummated. But just days after Griner’s sentencing, the Russians have indicated they’re willing to deal.
Hopefully, Griner and Whelan will be home before too long. But it’s important that we don’t come away with the wrong meaning of the swap … if and when it’s made. Griner’s foolish decision to go to Russia despite our government’s warning has placed a target on the back of any high-profile American traveling into Russia in the future.
She’s not a hero because of it.