Brittney Griner one of the greatest female basketball player of all time, has been detained in Moscow amid the war in Ukraine. After months in custody, the world is now paying more attention to her case.
Ms Griner, 31, had been arrested by Russian authorities on drug charges.
The uncertainty around her fate has fueled an outpouring of support for the player. And it has also engendered a sense of outrage among some fans who say the response to Ms Griner’s detainment was, at first, strangely muted.
Following her arrest, fans and experts said that they felt the attention she was given in comparison to male players exposed longstanding gender inequities in professional sports.
“If this was an NBA [professional men’s league] player of her calibre… this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world,” said Tamryn Spruill, a sports journalist who is writing a book on the WNBA and Ms Griner’s contributions to the league.
Brittney Griner Accomplishments
Ms Griner, a nine-year veteran of the league – is the “best of the best”, said Melissa Isaacson, a sportswriter and professor at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois.
“She’s every bit the Tom Brady of her sport,” Ms Isaacson said. “You could argue very accurately that she is one of the best athletes in the world.”
A native of Houston, Texas, she earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University where she led the team to a national championship.
She is now one of the WNBA’s most dominant players in history, widely considered the best offensive player in the league.
Few have accomplished what Ms Griner has done – winning a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles and an Olympic gold medal. And, famously, her ability to dunk is unmatched.
Off the court, she has also been seen as a trailblazer, coming out as gay at age 22, just around the time of her entry into professional sport.
She then became the first overall draft pick in the WNBA that year and, soon after, the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike.
“Before Griner, there was this shadow over the league, where it was like ‘don’t say gay,'” Ms Spruill said. “And she was just like ‘screw that, this is who I am’.”
“BG’s always been one to be a pioneer,” Griner’s teammate, Diana Taurasi has said.
Despite all this, Ms Griner had a second job, and that was why she had flown to Russia – to play for EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she had worked since 2014 during the US off-season.
Roughly half of WNBA players compete overseas in the off-season. For most, it’s a way to augment their domestic income: WNBA players receive roughly five times more in Russia than they do in the US.
“If she were Steph Curry or LeBron James, she wouldn’t be over there at all because she’d be making enough money,” Ms Spruill said.
Ms Griner’s counterparts in the men’s league make more than 200 times the maximum WNBA salary.
The WNBA announced on May 3 that it will feature Griner’s initials and jersey number (No. 42) on the sideline of all WNBA courts this season. The league also granted the Mercury roster and salary cap relief so they can carry a replacement player. Griner will continue to be paid her full salary.
“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”
WNBA statement said “Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
Strained Relations US & Ukraine
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams and US and WNBA officials began calling players out of the country.
But it was too late for Brittney Griner, who is believed to have entered Russia one week earlier, on 17 February, though the timing remains unclear.
The Russian Federal Customs Service said in a press release that a sniffer dog had led authorities to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player and that it had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency, Tass, identified the player as Ms Griner.
Russian authorities only confirmed her detention the third week of March, though they disclosed she was stopped at the airport in February.
Initially, US authorities and representatives for Brittney Griner were largely silent, other than to say they were working to bring her home.
In early May, however, the State Department said it considers Ms Griner to be “wrongfully” detained.
The case is now reportedly being handled by a special departmental section that specialises in helping release Americans held hostage or wrongfully imprisoned overseas.
On 13 May, the US State Department said a consular official the court hearing in which her hearing was extended, and spoke to Griner briefly.
A spokesman said Griner was doing “as well as can be expected during exceedingly difficult circumstances”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April that American officials are “doing everything we can” to help her.
“There’s only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point,” Mr Blinken said.
Ms Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, has said she was in “close contact” with the player and her lawyer in Russia, but could not comment further.
While there is no indication that Ms Griner’s arrest was connected to the invasion of Ukraine, some US officials have indicated strained US-Russian relations may jeopardise her safe return.
“We don’t want Ms Griner to become a pawn in the political battle that’s being waged throughout the world right now,” said US congressman John Garamendi, a member of the House of Representatives’ armed services committee.
“The war in Ukraine has essentially severed diplomatic ties between the US and Russia,” Mr Garamendi said. “That is going to exacerbate this issue.”
Fans sign petition for Basketball star
As Ms Griner’s detention grinds on, some fans have been left incredulous by an apparent lack of attention for a world-class athlete in prison among sports media.
Some have speculated that the silence was intentional – an effort to avoid inflaming an already precarious situation amid negotiations with Russia.
More than 260,000 fans have signed an online petition, organised by Ms Spruill, demanding the US government prioritise her safe return and treat her like “any other sports icon”.
Ms Griner’s wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram in April about the painful wait.
“People say ‘stay busy.’ Yet, there’s not a task in this world that could keep any of us from worrying about you. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by,” she wrote.
“There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting”.
Brittney Griner writes to Biden for help
In July, Brittney Griner, the American basketball superstar detained in Russia, has written to US President Joe Biden pleading for help.
Ms Griner has been held for over four months on what Russia says are drug charges.
In the letter, which arrived on Monday, she wrote about her fear that she might never return to US soil.
The White House has confirmed that the president has read the letter from the Phoenix Mercury player.
“President Biden has been clear about the need to see all US nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner,” said a spokeswoman from the National Security Council on Monday.
US authorities also reiterated that they are working “aggressively using every available means to bring her home”.
There is “no higher priority” than bringing basketball star Brittney Griner home, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Friday, as her drug trial in Russia begins.
Ms Griner has been held in Russia since her 17 February arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after cannabis oil was allegedly found in her luggage.
She is currently on trial and if convicted could face up to 10 years in prison.
Fewer than 1% of defendants in criminal cases are acquitted in Russia.
However unlike in US courts, even if she is acquitted, Russia’s government has the authority to overturn any decision and send her to prison.
One of the most successful players in female basketball, the double Olympic champion plays the Women’s NBA (WNBA) off-season in Russia.
Ms Griner plays in the EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she has worked since 2014.
Writing by Omotola Oguneye