Nobody trusts my ability to forecast the future, least of all me. Nevertheless, I feel fairly safe in predicting that WNBA star Brittney Griner will not serve all nine years of her sentence by a Russian court for drug possession and smuggling.
It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine this coming true, especially when recapping the basis for that charge: two vape cartridges of hashish oil found in Griner’s luggage at a Moscow airport in February.
Nine years? For two cartridges? The maximum sentence is 10 years, and at least Griner didn’t get that. Those with long enough memories can’t help but think of the incredulous laughs comedian Richard Pryor elicited more than 40 years ago over the arrest of ill-starred heavyweight champion Leon Spinks by St. Louis police for possessing cocaine with a street value of — wait for it — $1.50. That amount, Pryor quipped, “melts before you open the paper” it’s wrapped in.
Griner’s situation seems almost as absurd, but it’s no laughing matter. It’s exasperating and heartbreaking for her family, friends and WNBA colleagues, many of whom, like Griner, played for Russian professional women’s basketball teams because of the gender pay gap in the United States.
Here’s another prediction: However, and whenever it happens, Griner’s release will come because of diplomatic and legal negotiation, by turns delicate and tough. Outside of assurances by President Joe Biden and his administration that they are working to release Griner, we know next to nothing about that process beyond the possibilities of exchanging Russians imprisoned in the West for Griner and other incarcerated American citizens.
Diplomacy will help. Social media won’t. Outrage over the internet about Briner’s situation may comfort and embolden her family and friends. But those actively working for her return home already know how many share their pain.
Inevitably, there’s been a backlash toward this support of Griner, some attacking her for her outspoken views on racial justice and police brutality. During the 2020 WNBA season, she and Phoenix Mercury teammate Brianna Turner said they would remain in their locker rooms during the National Anthem to protest the shooting death that year of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Yeah, we’re here to play basketball,” Griner said at a news conference at the time. “But basketball doesn’t mean anything in a world where we can’t just live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over.”
Some have used her stance as an excuse not to support Griner, to paraphrase roughly, “She doesn’t support America. Why should America support her?” Other platforms have said she’s getting this attention because of her fame — even though her “fame” hasn’t helped her thus far. They ask why she was in Russia in the first place. (Um, she needed to work?)
But why go on? Ultimately, it buttresses what I’ve already suggested about the futility of social media, except as a conduit for our own feelings and attitudes. Nothing more.
At this point, only one assertion really matters: Griner, whether you agree with her or not, is an American citizen. She is one of us, a child raised among us growing into a person with her own beliefs, profession, marriage and life.
She deserves consideration as such from every other citizen whatever their beliefs. What she doesn’t deserve is to be made a pawn in a foreign country’s geopolitical agenda or, for that matter, anybody’s surrogate for a sociopolitical grievance or private prejudice.
Vent, declaim, decry or advocate — that’s what we do in this country with or without Instagram or Twitter. But never forget that something very human is being terribly, heartbreakingly violated by this process, whatever or whoever’s laws have been broken.
And remember that whatever happens — or doesn’t — isn’t in our control, but in the hands of lawyers, diplomats and others like them who are not now or may never be able to disclose the full story, even if they succeed in getting Griner out.
One thing I remain certain of: It won’t take nine years. That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking with it.