Britney Griner’s glimpses show the difficult road to liberation

One hundred and forty one days.

That is how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That’s how long she’s been stuck in the middle of a tense showdown between the United States and Russia at the worst possible time, as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his horrific invasion of Ukraine and repeats the return of the Cold War. War.

One hundred and forty one days. That’s how long Griner has been in limbo.

What terrible uncertainty and fear she must feel when she faces a decade in a Russian prison if found guilty. Griner caught that emotion in her. recent letter to President Biden. “I’m afraid I might stay here forever,” she wrote. She added, “Please don’t forget about me.”

Seven-time WNBA All-Star center Phoenix Mercury. pleaded guilty on Thursday, admitting they were wrong. In a nutshell, Griner and her lawyer said her troubles began with a mistake: She quickly prepared for her flight to Russia in February and inadvertently filled smoking cartridges with a small amount of hash oil — less than one gram, according to prosecutors. She stated that she did not intend to violate Russian law.

Experts say that the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion in the Russian legal system, which is completely directed against the defendants. Griner may have chosen not to fight a battle she could not win, which helped speed up her case.

We don’t know right now. Teammates, supporters and the wife of the Mercury Center, Sherel Grinerwas unable to speak to her directly. In connection with the war in Ukraine, all we in America saw or heard from Griner was an appearance in a courtroom in the Moscow region, where she was present in handcuffs.

Uncertainty and complexity hover over this terrible case. The Russian media have argued that negotiations on a possible exchange of prisoners are already underway, although US officials have not confirmed this. One placed swap will include the Russian national currency. Victor Bout, who has been incarcerated in the United States since 2012 for a 25-year term for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. At the time of his sentencing, prosecutors called Bout “one of the most successful and sophisticated arms dealers in the world.” He is known as the Merchant of Death.

This unilateral proposed deal shows the difficulty of negotiating Griner’s release. Would it be balanced to trade a basketball star who smuggled hash oil into Russia for a man found guilty of participating in an international conspiracy against the Americans?

Paul Whelan, another American in Russian custody, served two years of a 16-year sentence on espionage charges he denies. Is it fair to insist that Griner be released before Whelan? Should the United States negotiate to include him in the deal, even if it delays their release?

Complicating matters further are issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

Griner tattooed, dreadlocked, black, three inches to seven feet tall. She doesn’t conform to generally accepted gender stereotypes. She is married to a woman and is an outspoken LGBTQ activist. Putin has well documented contempt for LGBTQ people, which only increases the fears of her supporters for her well-being.

Her looks, sexiness, and outspokenness mean that the contempt for Griner is just as great in some circles in the United States. So it’s fair to wonder if the outrage among American citizens would have been louder and more pervasive if Griner had been a male star athlete who fit right into the traditionally accepted role.

“If it was LeBron, he would be at home, right?” Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach at the Mercury, said. “This is a statement about the value of women. This is a statement about the value of the black man. It’s a statement about the value of being gay.”

Nygaard may be right. Male athletes are the beneficiaries of a sports ecosystem in which their leagues get more TV time, their support brings in more money, and their achievements are more vocally praised. If it had been prisoner James – or Stephen Curry or Tom Brady – it stands to reason that their notoriety would have spurred the release of hotter mainstreams than was the case with Griner.

On the other hand, imagine what Russia would have demanded in exchange for LeBron James: the ransom is likely to far exceed that of a single arms dealer languishing in a US prison, especially given the tensions between Biden and Putin.

If it had been James in custody, well, a lot more than a few hundred people would have gathered to rally for his release. Wednesday, estimated 300 people gathered at the Mercury Arena, Phoenix’s Footprint Center to show their support for Griner. The building is designed for 17,000 seats.

I was in the arena in April for the Mercury preseason and was surprised by Griner’s reserved recognition in a city where she gave so much. Known as BG, she helped lead the Mercury to the WNBA title in 2014, but is also admired there for helping the homeless and championing LGBTQ rights. Local sports radio announcers barely mentioned her, instead constantly talking about the Phoenix Suns competing in the NBA playoffs.

At the time, Griner’s teammates at Mercury followed suit by its advisers, who chose to stay in the background and not make a fuss that might draw Putin’s wrath. It was clear that the players wanted to be more outspoken. When they talked about how much they loved their teammate and followed the recommended path, the ferocity and pain in their eyes showed me that they wanted to say more.

The approach changed a few weeks later when the US State Department stated that Griner was “wrongfully detained”. The league and its players roared, just as they often do on pressing social issues. Teams paid tribute to Griner by plastering her initials on home courts throughout the league. On social media, in press conferences and in interviews, the players demanded that Biden and the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home.

“Free BG,” DeWanna Bonner of the WNBA Connecticut Sun told the press. “We are BG. We love BG. Release her.”

The NBA joined in the chorus. Players wore “We are BG” T-shirts in practice during the NBA Finals. James, Curry and many other stars came out to demand her release. They were joined by athletes from other sports. Following Griner’s guilty plea Thursday, Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the US women’s soccer team, donned a white jacket with Griner’s initials embroidered on the lapel. awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What a roller coaster of strategy and emotions. Thursday’s hearing took another searing turn when Griner saw her in court begging for mercy.

“This BG situation is tough on everyone on our team,” Nygaard said ahead of Thursday night’s home game against the Liberty.

Trial and admission of guilt. Images of Griner with her hands tied and wide-eyed surrounded by Russian police.

“When your friend is in danger,” Nygaard added, and this friend says that “he is scared, it’s hard to run away from such things.”

One hundred and forty-one days, and so on.

Britney Greener is far from home and we don’t know when she will be released.