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While the world recognizes March as International Women’s Month, Brittney Griner, an American WNBA star, remains detained in Russia after airport security found a vape pen in her luggage.
On Saturday, Russia had confirmed it detained the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury center on drug charges, according to the Russian Federal Customs Service. Allegedly, officials found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in Griner’s luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, appeared to confirm her client’s detention in a statement, according to a report from the New York Times.
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.,” Colas said.
A video of the airport security check is dated for February, meaning Griner has most likely been detained for weeks in a country that has launched a full-scale war against its neighbor, Ukraine.
Sanctions on Russia complicate diplomatic effort to release Brittney Griner
As the Russian Federation, under the authoritarian leadership of President Vladimir Putin, engages in its 12th day of attacking the sovereign nation of Ukraine, countries around the world, the European Union and the United States have taken unprecedented action to blunt Putin’s economic power through sanctions of its industries.
The Ruble, Russia’s main form of currency, has dropped to a generational low, and countries have begun to cut off Russian media propaganda websites, further isolating Putin.
Meanwhile, Putin has warned other nations that economic sanctions are “akin to a declaration of war” as he tries to limit the impact.
With Russia and the United States at their worst point in diplomatic relations since the Cold War, it remains to be seen how easy it will be to free Brittney Griner from a jail in Russia.
For WNBA players, overseas pays more than at home
Since Jan. 23, the U.S. State Department had warned Americans not to travel to Russia, saying there was the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”
Yet, Brittney Griner and other WNBA players have for years played overseas in countries like Russia, precisely because they’re paid far more than in the U.S.
For instance, Griner, a Houston native who became one of the few N.C.A.A female players to ever dunk, soared to stardom at Baylor, becoming a three-time all-American. She went on to become the only player of any gender in the N.C.A.A. to ever score more than 2,000 points, and clinched a W.N.B.A. championship title in 2014.
Yet, for all of these accolades, she’s set to earn $228,000 with the Mercury in the 2022 season, according to Her Hoop Stats. That’s a far cry from the NBA average of $8.25 million, according to Run Repeat, which analyzes salaries in the NBA.
In Russia, Brittney Griner is able to earn closer to $1.5 million, nearly 10 times her salary for playing in the states.
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the country’s top diplomat, spoke out about Griner’s situation.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” Blinken said, according to a video shared by ESPN. Blinken added that the U.S. continues to seek the release of two U.S. marines imprisoned in Russia, making the possibility of a swift release for Griner unlikely.
Expert on Blackness in Eastern Europe gives ominous warning
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History. She studies Race and Blackness in Ukraine and other Eastern European nations.
In an interview with MSNBC on Friday, Julian-Varnon explained how Brittney Griner’s identity might affect her detainment.
“It’s incredibly concerning and I think one of the key things is Brittney is well-known, I mean she has played basketball in Russia since 2015. But she’s also a visible minority,” Julian-Varnon said. “She is a Black woman. She’s also openly gay. She’s an LGBTQIA community member. And she stands out. She’s very tall. So all of these things do not bode well for her in terms of being locked up in Russian custody.”
On top of that, Russian officials place steep penalties on drug traffickers, and despite only finding what amounts to a vape pen in Griner’s luggage, Russian authorities consider her charges much more serious than they would be in the U.S.
“These aren’t’ your typical possession misdemeanor charges. She’s facing charges for large-scale transportation of narcotics. She’s facing five to 10 years in prison minimum in Russia,” Julian-Varnon added.
— Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon (@ksvarnon) March 5, 2022
Ultimately, it’s unclear whether Brittney Griner had legal representation at the time of her detainment or whether she faces an upcoming trial in a country known for giving years-long sentences to peaceful protesters.
An international figure representing Black excellence on the world stage, Brittney Griner has won two Olympic medals for the U.S. in 2016 and 2021, on top of her 2014 WNBA championship win.
“She has been held for at least two to three weeks so we don’t actually know what has been going on behind the scene. So, we have to be very careful with how we speculate because we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize her case,” Julian-Varnon said.