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Russian news agencies have reported jailed WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling amidst a trial in Moscow that began on July 1.
Reports claim Griner spoke through an interpreter, explaining that she was packing in haste and didn’t mean to include a cannabis vape pen in her luggage when arriving at a Russian airport in February to play overseas during the offseason, according to the Associated Press.
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs after authorities at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport found just 0.7 grams of cannabis extracts in a vape cartridge.
Her case has highlighted for many the pay gap between NBA players, who on average earn $7.3 million per year according to Statista, and WNBA players , who on average earn $128, 369 per year according to HerHoopStats.com. The wide pay gap forces many WNBA players, such as Griner, to play overseas to make up the difference. As one of the greatest players in the WNBA, Griner’s salary is roughly 229,000 while NBA star LeBron James makes over $41 million.
Brittney Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court to drugs charges that could see her face 10 years in prison
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she said in court https://t.co/TAgy7GyQkI
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) July 7, 2022
On Thursday, Russian authorities escorted Griner into the courtroom in handcuffs wearing a red shirt displaying the word “Crenshaw”.
Calls for the U.S. to do more to secure her release have soared in recent months after the U.S. State Dept. designated her as “wrongfully detained.” Though it’s unclear if or when Brittney will be freed from a nation currently attacking its neighbor Ukraine in a bloody war that has drawn accusations of terrorism and war crimes.
Russia ignores claims that Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained”
The urgency of the situation was illustrated through a letter Griner sent to President Biden on Independence Day, urging him to come to her aid.
Russian leaders have warned that Griner won’t be able to avoid a full-blown trial that could last months.
“Attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don’t help the practical settlement of issues,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday.
Still, that hasn’t stopped U.S. leaders from advocating for her.
This week, Rev. Al Sharpton called on Biden to arrange a prayer meeting with Brittney Griner.
“Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the President acts on her pleas to come home,” Sharpton said.
An organization called Win With Black Women also weighed in, sending a letter to Biden saying Secretary of State Antony Blinken “has called Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, assuring her and stating publicly that Brittney’s safe return was a matter of personal priority; however, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to align with the actions taken to date. We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly.”
President Biden spoke with Cherelle Griner by phone
For his part, The White House confirmed that Biden received Griner’s letter to him.
In the letter, she expressed her fears that she may never return to the U.S.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” the Phoenix Mercury center added. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, the White House confirmed Biden spoke with Griner’s wife Cherelle on Wednesday after obtaining the letter.
Yet, the U.S. strategy to secure Brittney Griner’s release hasn’t been made clear. Russian news agencies have repeatedly floated the idea of trading two-time Olympic athlete Brittney Griner for Victor Bout, a Russian businessman and arms dealer serving a 25 prison sentence in the U.S. after being convicted in 2012, ABC News reported.
Prisoner swap? Not until after trial
Notably, many are wondering what the response would be if it were an NBA star like LeBron James who had been detained instead of Griner, a lesbian Black WNBA superstar.
Vanessa Nygaard, coach of WNBA Phoenix Mercury, re: Brittney Griner. “If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right? It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those. We know it.” pic.twitter.com/5FMAF27qh8
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) July 4, 2022
Russian authorities have confirmed that any talks of prisoner swaps wouldn’t be handled until after a trial.
Countering U.S. messaging, senior Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov warned that criticizing Russia’s judicial system “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”
Ultimately, Griner’s trial has been delayed almost immediately after it began because two witnesses didn’t appear. Her detention has been extended through Dec. 20.
Yet, as the U.S. continues seeking Brittney Griner’s release, along with the release of former Marine Paul Whelan, Russia has shown no signs of backing down.
“This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence … Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said Wednesday.
“The law has been violated, and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some U.S. states, are inappropriate in this case,” he said.