Brittney Griner walked into this mess with her eyes wide closed


Daughter, What did you think?

I know from decades of sports coverage that many, if not most, athletes have a blind view of the world. That may have changed somewhat following the cancellation of Colin Kaepernick as a football professional for kneeling during the American anthem, and the wider social revulsion sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. Several athletes and sports leagues have since found their voice of conscience.

As they did to Brittney Griner, who was sentenced by a Russian court last week to nine-and-a-half years in prison for possessing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil – one-seventh of a teaspoon – when she landed in Moscow on February 17.

A week later, President Vladimir Putin sent his troops across the border in a totally unwarranted invasion of Ukraine. Five months later, this war continues.

But anyone paying even an ounce of attention to the reports would have known the attack was imminent.

It’s unclear how aware Griner was of the tense situation, or what warnings may have been ignored, as the Phoenix Mercury star carelessly packed up for her trip – with no malign intent, as she would try to l remorsefully explain at trial – throwing a vape canister of cannabis oil into her bag, recommended by doctors as a painkiller treatment linked to basketball injuries she had suffered over the years to her spine , ankle and knees. Chronic pain is also a reality for elite athletes, and cannabis a frequent source of legal recourse.

Not in Russia, however. The result is a severe sentence – by Western standards if not Russian jurisprudence – if convicted (Griner pleaded guilty) of drug possession and smuggling. The charge of smuggling, by the letter of the law, is nonetheless absurd.

So Griner, even as his lawyer prepares an appeal, will likely be put on a train and transported to one of Russia’s monstrous penal colonies, condemned by a human rights organization for forcing inmates to perform forced labor. The president of the UN Committee against Torture said in 2018 that nearly 4,000 deaths had been recorded in these penitentiaries.

Successors of the gulags of the former Soviet Union, the penal colonies are known for their appalling living conditions. Many, according to justice campaigners, are primarily run by the Russian mafia. The Russian journalist Olga Romanova, founder of an organization for the defense of prisoners’ rights, wrote a few years ago that each prison has a production unit – a sewing factory, a carpentry or metal workshop – whose profits go to intermediary companies buying and selling goods at low prices, or to prison authorities via bribes.

President Joe Biden absolutely needs to get Griner out.

The 31-year-old coached USA in these clearly intolerable circumstances. And there’s no point, clearly, in pretending that she meant no harm and caused none.

She returned to Russia, completely unreading the geopolitical room, and, even accidentally in possession of an illegal substance, turned herself into a political pawn for Putin as Moscow and Washington now squabble over a prisoner swap for the release of Griner who will likely secure freedom for one of the most villainous arms traffickers currently detained in the United States.

Griner can be a “soft” target, easily exploitable by Putin. But, as a hostage, she entered this mess with her eyes wide closed. The two-time Olympic champion and eight-time WNBA all-star was among several American players (and coaches) drawn to the Russian Premier League, particularly top-flight UMMC Ekaterinburg – 10 Russian championships and five UEFA Champions League titles. EuroLeague over the past decade – a club that appeals to foreign players by offering large sums, operating without a salary cap. It’s an off-season lure, paying a woman more than she receives in the WNBA. Griner reportedly signed a $1 million (US) annual contract with UMMC, far eclipsing his $664,544 contract with the Mercury.

During court testimony, Griner said she didn’t want to disappoint her fans in Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. Which may be true. She willingly returned to a club she has competed for since 2014, in a city where American players live in a bubble, cut off from Russian realities. Attractive as she is, Griner, a black woman in a same-sex marriage, has returned to a country where anti-minority racism thrives (exchange students from Africa have long complained about their treatment) and which has place tough laws against the promotion of gay “propaganda”.

Of course, if Griner had waited a bit longer none of this would have happened because with its invasion of Ukraine Russia has become a sporting pariah, sporting engagement with the rest of the planet being almost nonexistent these days.

It was a dangerous decision Griner made. Pleading ignorance is not enough.

So now Putin would demand the repatriation of Victor Bout, the Tajikistan-born arms dealer close to Russian military and intelligence agencies, who is halfway through serving a 25-year federal prison sentence after being caught in a sting, offering to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States considered a terrorist group. Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, Bout was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury of four counts, including conspiracy to kill US citizens. He really is a villain.

A prisoner swap would send Bout home to Russia in exchange for Griner and ex-marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned by Russia as a foreign spy. Whelan, who holds some form of US, Canadian, British and Irish citizenship, served two tours in Iraq but was fired from the Marines in 2008 for ‘larceny’ – allegedly using someone’s social security number another to write NSF cheques.

Prisoner swaps often require pinching your nose — as President Barack Obama did when he gave up five detainees of the Taliban commander at Guantanamo Bay for the Army Sgt’s return. Bowe Bergdahl, the asshole – and deserter – who disappeared from an American outpost in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban.

It’s almost always a bad look that wrings your arms. Again, Griner played into Russia’s hands and threw Biden into a moral dilemma. Washington has long resisted prisoner swaps because they only incentivize bad actors to kidnap and detain Americans. Biden, under intense pressure, is on board with the swap plan, which will only escalate Republican criticism and could be exploited in coming semesters. For their part, Russian officials have warned the administration to keep all talks low; stick to designated channels and move away from “microphone diplomacy”.

Meanwhile, Putin, furious at US sanctions following the war in Ukraine, can sit back and relish the American dilemma. He holds the hammer. As Jared Genser, a human rights attorney who represents Americans detained by foreign governments, told the New York Times on Friday, “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means that he looked at the American offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’

Jump the ball, Putin.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist who covers sports and current affairs for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno




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