Brittney Griner, who sits in a Russian prison cell as I write this, is indeed a member of a group. But not the groups some people suggest.
Former President Donald Trump said Griner is “a spoiled person” who was “loaded up with drugs” and would make a “bad trade” if offered in a prisoner exchange for a Russian arms dealer. Trump has no evidence Griner is spoiled, she was hardly “loaded up” with anything, and no human being should be measured by a bad-trade/good trade standard.
Some conservative commentators cast Griner as an unsympathetic anti-American radical, because she didn’t come out for the national anthem before WNBA basketball games. “Bet she wants to hear the National Anthem now,” tweeted right-wing commentator Sebastian Gorka, as if Griner is some kind of anarchist who had this coming. Does she really deserve to wallow in a Russian cell for her anthem choice?
LeBron James cast Griner as a victim of America’s indifference, saying, “How can she feel like America has her back? I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’ ” He was both wrong and foolish. Griner’s situation — arrested, charged and convicted for having hashish oil in her luggage — didn’t happen because America wasn’t watching out for her, and her continued stay in jail isn’t about America “having her back.” This isn’t some scuffle on a basketball court.
It’s not about her race, gender, sexuality
A CNN host, Dana Bash, suggested Griner was given her harsh, nine-year sentence in Russia because “let’s just get real … how much of this is because she is a 6-foot-9, black, lesbian American?” As if a shorter, whiter, straight American would not be treated so badly.
Bash should have checked her own network’s recent interview with Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who is white, straight and hardly 6 feet 9, but was also handed a similar nine-year prison sentence in Russia for an allegedly trumped up charge of assaulting a police officer.
Bash and others also suggested Griner should be pitied because she belongs to a group of women basketball players who have to play in places like Russia “because they don’t get paid anywhere near what the (NBA) men get paid in the U.S.”
First of all, almost no one in America gets paid what an NBA basketball player does. Nonetheless, Griner earned a healthy $227,900 per season playing in the WNBA, a league that loses around $10 million a year every year but is underwritten by the NBA, which earns billions.
Griner also has a $1 million endorsement deal with Nike. So she didn’t need to play basketball anywhere else. Yet in 2013 she voluntarily chose to play in China, hardly an American ally, earning $600,000 for four months work, and then in Russia, where she reportedly earns $1 million a year.
She has been playing in Russia since 2014. So she doesn’t belong in the “I didn’t know what I was getting into” category either. She’s been back and forth to Moscow many times.
So how should Brittany Griner be rightfully viewed? Here’s how. In the category of “wrongfully detained Americans overseas,” which currently contains around 40 to 60 U.S. citizens, depending on which reports you read.
These people are as varied as the crowd at a shopping mall: Some are men, some women, some were born here, some emigrated, some are former military, some are businesspeople.
But they all have one thing in common. They are being held by regimes unfriendly to America, who may have political motives for keeping them.
And unlike Griner, who is in the headlines almost every day, many of these people have been ignored for years, even as their families plead desperately for their release.
An unfortunate pawn in a political chess game
This is the group that Brittney Griner belongs to now. People like Jeffrey Woodke, a Christian humanitarian aid worker who was kidnapped six years ago in Niger and is reportedly being held in Africa by Islamic militants. His wife, Els, expressed her frustration with the U.S. government after years of hoping her husband would be returned.
People like Matthew Heath, who was arrested in Venezuela in 2020 and charged with arms trafficking. His lawyer says the charges were falsified. Yet Heath remains in jail, despite U.S. efforts to secure his release.
People like Luke Denman and Airan Berry, two former Green Berets from Texas who have been sentenced in Venezuela to 20-year prison terms. Or a businessman from Houston named Mark Swidan who has been held in a China detention center for more than nine years, accused of being part of a drug conspiracy. Or Siamak Namazi, a businessman with U.S. and Iranian citizenship, who has been captive in Iran since 2015, arrested while visiting his family in Tehran.
And of course, Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was detained in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for allegedly spying.
Whelan’s case is now getting renewed attention only because of the enormous attention given to Griner. The Biden administration is trying to get them home together, offering a prisoner swap for the aforementioned arms dealer, Viktor Bout.
But so far Russia hasn’t budged. Many believe Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to secure an even greater return. This is how it goes in such situations. The experts will tell you it is a slow, plodding, chess match of political will, pressure and connections. It takes the perfect combination of negotiations and timing to tumble the lock free.
And so Griner, in the end, is a pawn for an autocratic government. In that way, she is a victim like the others held in China, Venezuela, Russia or Iran. Her situation is not defined by her race, her sexual preference, her athletic talent, her money or her stance on the national anthem.
She is simply a human being who made a mistake in the wrong place, and is now part of a group that nobody wants to belong to. She deserves our empathy. She also deserves clarity on what this is and is not about. She’s already being used by a government. Let’s not misuse her anymore.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.