Brittney Griner’s Fight for Release From Russia
Brittney Griner talks to the world these days through photos. Nearly three months after Griner was detained in Russia, she appeared in a stark picture of Griner. She stood handcuffed with her head bowed and her face covered, her hair dangling from a sweatshirt. At another hearing in June, we also saw her eyes, but she was squinting, scared and confused. Her reaction to the cameras in courtroom stunned her.
As one of the most dominant players in the history of women’s basketball, Griner—affectionately known as BG to friends and fans—has always represented something bigger than just athletic excellence. Her courage and triumph over bullying, hatred, and alienation has made her a role model for others, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ LGBTQ+ community. Now, “wrongly detained” in the euphemistic lingo of international diplomacy, Griner unwittingly has come to stand for even more.
Griner was the most well-known detainee of thousands that Russia took during the invasion of Ukraine. A regime trying to demonstrate the limits American power, Griner has been exploited as a prominent prisoner. Her imprisonment advances President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to humble U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been simultaneously criticized for failing to win Griner’s release and for prioritizing her case over those of other long-detained Americans abroad. At home, Griner’s detention has fueled outrage at the lack of equal rights for LGBTQ+ and Black people, an inequity long exploited by Moscow’s propagandists but nonetheless evident everywhere in American society.
Artwork by Lorna Simpson for TIME; source photograph by Stephen Gosling—NBAE/Getty Images.
President Biden has approved a plan to offer the release of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the Russians’ release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American held captive in Russia for more than three years, sources familiar with the matter tell TIME. Moscow “should be interested” in the offer “based on their prior representations,” a senior Administration official says, but as of July 27 had not responded to the offer. That leaves Griner at the mercy of the Russian judicial system, long criticized in the U.S. and Europe as subject to the whims of Moscow’s leaders. Griner’s Russian lawyers have told authorities that U.S. doctors prescribed her medical cannabis. The defendant pleaded guilty and claimed that she was a negligent packer of the banned substance. Griner testified, on July 27, that much of what she said to the police was not translated when she was first interrogated at an airport.
In this high-profile battle between two nuclear powers locked in a historic contest in Ukraine, it’s easy to forget the core tragedy of Griner’s case. Griner had overcome many hardships throughout her life and she was able to thrive. Nike signed her as the company’s first out gay athlete. She met her husband. She’s in the prime of her life, hitting her stride as a public figure, wife, sibling, and daughter, and teammate, and friend. This is what we have now. “The toughest moment during this ordeal is when I stop to think about how BG is doing,” Griner’s wife Cherelle writes to TIME in an email. “Those moments are overwhelming, and I’m consumed with emotions.”
Even though Griner is still uncertain of her fate, July brought Griner moments of hope. Griner faces a possible 10-year sentence in prison. Biden sent Griner a July 4, asking him to send her home. On July 4, the Vice President and President talked to Cherelle. Her courtroom cage was filled with photos of the WNBA All-Stars, who played a half-time in her Phoenix Mercury jersey. She received courtroom testimonials form friends from UMCC Ekaterinburg who play for her Russian team during the U.S. Off-season. In one snapshot, she even flashed a grin—between the metal bars. “It helps me sleep better at night,” says Dawn Staley, Griner’s coach on last year’s gold-medal Tokyo Olympic team, “just knowing that she could smile.”
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Those close to Griner worry that the longer she remains imprisoned, the more likely the psychological trauma she’s spent a lifetime shedding returns. Sandra Griner, who was born in Houston to Raymond, a local sheriff and Vietnam veteran father, and Sandra, her mother, was a homemaker. Griner loved fixing cars when she was a little girl. Griner loved to wrestle with her dog in the mud. She got Barbie dolls from her mom. Griner had them cut their hairs, and they were then painted green or black.
Griner came to understand that she was not like everyone else. “Everybody always talks about how we should celebrate the things that make each of us special,” Griner writes in her 2014 autobiography, In My Skin. “The problem is, a lot of people are full of crap when it comes to following their own advice.” Kids would poke at her chest, asking if she was a boy. In her bedroom, she kept a journal and made drawings. She was constantly crying. Griner wept in her stuffed animals. Griner wrote down her thoughts, such as You can make my day normal once I awake.
Age 5: On a fourth-grade four-wheeler
Courtesy Griner Family
Griner had never participated in organized basketball prior to high school. She joined the volleyball team in the fall of her first year at Houston’s Nimitz High. Debbie Jackson noticed her 5-foot-10in height during a game. Debbie Jackson, a basketball coach at the high school asked Griner to play hoops. “I remember the first day she shot the ball,” says Janell Roy, a high school teammate who would become Griner’s lifelong best friend. “It was terrible. We were like, ‘Yo, you really can’t play!’ ”
As she grew up, her skills improved. Her viral video from 2007 on YouTube, in which she rammed it home, became a hit. Diana Taurasi, Griner’s future pro teammate with the Phoenix Mercury and overseas, recalls watching the video from Russia, where she was playing at the time. “These were grownup dunks,” says Taurasi. “We were just like, ‘Well, that’s the future of basketball. We might not have a job for very much longer.” Some of her high school stats—like 25 blocks in one game—were cartoonish.
During her senior year, Griner’s father learned his daughter was gay. “You can pack your bags and get the f-ck out!” she says he told her. Griner stayed seven weeks with her assistant coach. Although there was tension, Griner’s father is now more understanding. Now they are very close.
Griner committed to Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university. Griner, a junior high student, told Baylor coach Kim Mulkey that she was gay. “As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care,” Mulkey said, according to Griner’s book. Griner said that Mulkey’s behavior was different when she reached campus. Griner was unaware that Baylor prohibited “advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” After Griner went out with her girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, Mulkey chastised her for failing to “keep your business behind closed doors.” A spokesperson for LSU, where Mulkey now coaches, did not return an interview request from TIME; Baylor chartered its first ever LGBTQ+ group this April.
Griner felt stressed living in the shadows. Griner’s anger sometimes showed up on the court. Griner, a freshman at Texas Tech, was suspended for two games after punching and breaking the nose of a Texas Tech student. Mulkey sent Griner to therapy immediately after the incident. Griner was able to talk with someone and continues therapy until her adult years.
Griner was the Mercury’s top overall pick in 2013. Griner initially deferred on the court to Taurasi who is an all-time legend. “She’s the most unselfish superstar player I’ve ever been around,” says Taurasi. “I would have to get into her to demand the ball.” The Mercury won the WNBA title in 2014, Griner’s second year in the league.
Her personal life was turbulent. Griner was married to Glory Johnson, a former WNBA star. They had been arrested just weeks earlier after an altercation that turned physical. Griner applied for annulment within 28 days. “The biggest thing during that is she did not want to feel like a failure,” says Roy: “Where do I go from here—where people don’t think I’m this monster?”
Griner’s physicality on the court belies her more personable nature. Cherelle met Griner at Mooyah Burgers in Baylor. She was amazed by Griner’s ability to get to know each employee. “She often will go eat her lunch in the employee lounge at the arena in Phoenix with the security, because she says, ‘I want to know all my co-workers,’” says Cherelle.
She once opened the van doors to a van and grabbed boxes of shoes before taking off towards a group homeless men, as she was working with the Phoenix Rescue Mission. “It wasn’t, ‘You guys go first,’” says Danny Dahm, street-outreach supervisor at the mission. “She was like, ‘Let’s do this.’ She wasn’t afraid to touch people.”
Griner in her 2017 shoe drive
Barry Gossage—Phoenix Mercury
Griner is also funny. “She’s one of those who will throw a ball at you in the middle of the aisle at Walmart, and take off running,” says Roy. Griner appreciates the “big person in tiny contraption” sight gag. One time, Griner rode her motorized tricycle around Mercury’s sales floor waving to employees. Mercury players work for a sponsoring grocery store every day. “She’ll end up in a shopping cart every year, like a 5-year-old would but with her 6-ft. 9-in. legs hanging out,” says Mercury president Vince Kozar. “And every year she ends up on a microphone asking for a price check on green beans, or something else that she doesn’t actually need.”
She now laughs at the slights she once felt. “She doesn’t let that sh-t faze her,” says Olympic teammate Sue Bird. “There are times when she would get mistaken for a guy. She would walk into a woman’s bathroom and someone would stop her and be, ‘Oh, no, this is not your bathroom.’ I’ve heard people call her sirAn airport. ‘Excuse me, sir, can you come this way?’ She’s just like, ‘Whatever.’ She almost has a vibe about her. ‘No one’s going to ruin my day.’”
“She lives in peace,” says Staley. “She’s been through things in her life, trials and tribulations. Yet no one’s going to shake her equilibrium. That’s who you love.”
Griner has spent her WNBA off-seasons since 2014 at the gateway to -Siberia, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a club that pays Griner the more than $1 million salary unavailable to her in the U.S., where she’ll make $228,000 this year. “BG loved playing in Russia,” says Cherelle. “They value women’s basketball.” Griner took great pride in winning four -Euro-league championships. “She called Yekaterinburg her second home, and this is not an empty phrase,” Maxim Rybakov, UMMC Ekaterinburg’s general manager, testified at a July 14 court hearing. “Even after the warning from the U.S. intelligence agencies, Brittney was determined to continue playing for the team.”
He called Griner the team’s “moral leader.” Her Russian teammate Evgenia Belyakova testified it was “difficult to overestimate” Griner’s contribution to Russian basketball. “She is currently,” said Belyakova, “the most beloved player in Russia.”
Putin doesn’t seem to care. Russia has used American racial divides to its advantage since the Soviet Union days. Soviet newspapers published coverage of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. This exposed the hypocrisy in a democratic system which promoted freedom but treated Blacks so badly. In order to support Donald Trump’s candidacy, a 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee Report found that Russian operatives had created Facebook accounts and ads disincentivizing Black Americans from voting.
WNBA All-Stars wear Griner’s No. 42
Mary Kate Ridgway—NBAE/Getty Images
Griner’s arrest has already flared tensions in America. “If this was LeBron James, Tom Brady—you can go into any professional men’s sport—if this was a man, he would have been home by now,” Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics tells TIME. “It would have been a priority. Unfortunately, BG has fallen into that realm being a woman, being a gay woman, being a gay Black woman.” When James himself wondered aloud, on his talk show The Shop if Griner would even want to return to America—“How can she feel like America has her back?” he said—conservatives pummeled him as anti-American. He tweeted a clarification that he “wasn’t knocking our beautiful country.”
Putin enjoys such rage. “He’s creating mischief and mayhem,” says Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council under President Trump. With Biden’s approval ratings sinking to new lows, Putin may be loath to release Griner and hand his counterpart any semblance of a PR win. “What I and others fear,” says Hill, “is that the more she can become a wedge issue, the more Biden and the White House gets castigated, the more valuable she becomes for them to keep.”
After a strategy of peaceful negotiations to release Griner, the U.S. government decided to increase the pressure. Russian officials have publicly stated that they don’t appreciate the pressure. “The Biden Administration needs to rein it in,” says Jason Poblete, an attorney who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad. “They’ve made a big mistake escalating it the way that they did.”
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For now, the U.S. feels the ball is in Moscow’s court. The two countries exchanged Konstantin Yaroshenko (a Russian drug dealer convicted in Connecticut) for Trevor Reed. Reed was a former Marine who had been accused of attacking a Russian officer. Reed spent 985 days in Russian custody. Russia had previously requested Bout’s release. He was sentenced for conspiring to sell arms to terrorists and was sentenced to 25-years imprisonment. The U.S. judge in Bout’s case, Shira A. Scheindlin, told TIME that if she weren’t restricted by minimum sentencing guidelines, she would have given Bout some 10 years, which is now about the length of time he’s been in prison.
Biden Administration officials are against prisoner swaps as they fear that it may encourage hostage taking abroad. For those who are concerned about human rights and international crime, letting Bout go has proved difficult. But “the President has been clear about the need to bring [Griner and Whelan] home,” says the senior Administration official. Biden’s approval of an exchange of Bout for Griner and Whelan was first reported by CNN.
An officer removes Griner’s handcuffs before a July 26 court hearing outside Moscow
Alexander Zemlianichenko—POOL/AFP/Getty Images
Bout’s inclusion in any trade proposal signals Griner’s importance to Biden; the pro-swap advocates, for now, are winning out. Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, traveled to Moscow with former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson in February to meet Russian officials about Reed’s and Whelan’s cases. He cites a 2018 Rand Corp. study concluding “there is little historical evidence to support the contention that a no-concessions policy reduces kidnappings.”
Arguments to the contrary are “intellectually lazy and morally bankrupt,” Bergman says, “because the government efforts to disincentivize and deter the taking of Americans cannot be done on the backs of those already imprisoned.”
Griner was tired and stressed while in detention. Griner is tired and stressed in detention. But, seeing the photos of the WNBA All-Star tribute made her feel better. The support from the basketball community and her family “is very important to BG and helps to remain optimistic,” says her Russian lawyer, Maria Blagovolina.
Besides the Bible, she’s reading Demons, by Dostoevsky, while in jail; she’s also finished works by Kafka and James Patterson, and the memoirs of rockers Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. Although communication outside is difficult and closely monitored, many coaches and players have written notes to her. Staley advised her to call the dominant BG. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm’s star and a mother to the Seattle Storm, told Griner that her daughter is prone to crying whenever she comes near a Roomba. “You’re trying to give her hope and strength and things like that, but also want her to think about some other silly things,” says Stewart.
Staley states Griner’s writings about Griner’s experience as the most powerful person in jail are what Griner said. “You can tell she’s trying to find the joy of just waking up every day,” says Taurasi. “The first letter she wrote back, she said she tried to go vegan the first week, but that didn’t work. Then she went back to eating animal flesh. It’s kinda funny. Only BG would try to go vegan in a Russian prison.”
While her loved ones fear for her mental health, they also believe that all the strife she’s faced—being taunted because of her appearance, rejected because of her sexuality, assumed to be something she’s not—have prepared her to meet this awful moment. “People don’t even know how much she has already pushed through,” says Roy. “For me to know her past journey, and some of the things that she’s dealt with, I can tell you that my sister is not going to come back weak. That’s for sure. She’s only going to come back stronger.” —With reporting by Brian Bennett, Vera Bergengruen, and Massimo Calabresi/Washington; Solcyre Burga, Mariah Espada, and Simmone Shah/New York; and Mariia Vynogradova/London
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