President Joe Biden on Thursday announced that WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner has been released from detention in Russia, ending a 10-month ordeal that sparked nationwide calls for her release from celebrities, top athletes and politicians.
“People all across the country have learned about Brittney’s story, advocated for her release, stood with her throughout this terrible ordeal,” Biden said in remarks at the White House alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “She endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best about America.”
The Biden administration negotiated her release in exchange for a Russian arms dealer. Griner, who is a player with the Phoenix Mercury but has played in Russia during the WNBA off-season for years, has been detained since she was arrested and charged with drug smuggling in February. Advocates feared how Griner, a Black queer woman, would be treated while imprisoned in Russia.
Following news of her release, supporters took to social media to express their excitement.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the Phoenix Mercury said in a statement.
As details about Griner’s release continue to emerge, The 19th spoke with Russia expert Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon about her case and the significance of her release.
Why was Brittney Griner detained?
Griner, 32, had played professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2014. In February, she was arrested when Russian authorities found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
In July, Griner pled guilty to the drug charges against her and stated that she never intended to break the law. During the trial, the 6’9” athlete was held in a cage — standard procedure in Russia. The court sentenced her to nine years in a Russian penal colony.
Has Russia ever arrested Americans for drugs before?
Russia has arrested U.S. citizens in the past for drug-related charges. Possession of up to seven grams of marijuana is punishable by fines; more than seven grams can result in up to two years of “corrective labor.” However, smuggling charges are much more severe and can lead to a 10-year prison sentence.
Surrounding Griner’s arrest and detention was a contentious political environment between the United States and Russia. Griner’s arrest gave Russia a bargaining opportunity to take advantage of her celebrity status and the public interest in her case to make its own demands.
“I think the timing of her detention speaks to the importance of the geopolitical implications,” said St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work focuses on Russia, the Soviet Union and Black identity. “Russia released that information a week after they invaded Ukraine, and she was detained a few days before. I think all of that is connected to the deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Russia.”
Why was Griner playing in Russia?
Following Griner’s arrest, fellow women athletes pointed to the circumstances that brought Griner to Russia, including pay disparities between men and women professional athletes.
WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks told “Good Morning America” in April that Griner was “over there because of a gender issue.”
“We go over there to supplement our incomes, and quite frankly, we go over there to maintain our game,” she added.
While the average base salary for an NBA player this year was about $5 million, the average for a WNBA player was about $130,000, though high-profile players receive much more.
“As painful as all of this is, you know, it’s going to force us to have a real conversation about pay equity — or inequity, for that matter,” Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players’ union, told NPR in July. “We have a phrase in the [Women’s National Basketball Players Association]: It’s ‘bet on women,’ and it’s about truly what the words say, betting on them, investing in them, supporting them.”
What led to Griner’s release?
Following Griner’s arrest on February 17, statements of support and calls for her release poured in, particularly from Black and queer women. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, became a vocal champion, appearing on television to inform the public about the status of Brittney’s criminal case as well as her mental well-being.
Griner also received ardent support from women athletes, including her team members, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and basketball Hall of Fame player and coach Dawn Staley. When Rapinoe received the presidential medal of freedom in July, she wore a white blazer embroidered with the initials “BG” on her lapel. The statement “We are BG” became a common refrain for the public campaign for her safe return.
NBA stars also voiced support. Members of the Boston Celtics wore “We are BG” T-shirts during the NBA finals in June. In October, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors noted Griner’s birthday and her continued imprisonment during Golden State’s championship ring ceremony.
Cannabis advocacy groups and Griner’s global fan base also weighed in. Those collective calls never stopped, adding to the mounting pressure on the Biden administration to act quickly on her release.
“You have the benefits of her celebrity, meaning you have a lot more people who know about the case, who were covering the case, and the WNBA as an organization with power and athletes who are also activists,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “All of this is coming together to really push for Brittney’s release.”
Media reports and statements from Cherelle Griner about her wife’s deteriorating mental state heightened feelings of urgency about her release.
In November, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called Griner’s trial “a sham” and reaffirmed the department’s commitment to bringing Griner and others home.
In his remarks following news of her release, Biden said Griner was “wrongfully detained” in “intolerable circumstances.”
“It’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world. Anywhere in the world. And I’m proud that, today, we have made one more family whole again,” Biden said. “So, welcome home, Brittney.”
On social media, supporters praised the administration’s efforts and the widespread advocacy that contributed.
“Brittney Griner’s release is a reminder of the power that Black women have always had in leading the call for justice, and the power of the global sports community in lifting up Brittney as a wife, a teammate, a champion and a friend,” tweeted Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ athletic advocacy group.
What are the conditions of her release?
While Biden confirmed the release of Griner, welcoming her home to her family, he didn’t share many specifics about the deal.
Of the few public details, the most notable is that Griner was freed in exchange for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” who was serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison. Bout’s name has long been circulated by news media as part of ongoing negotiations.
What are the implications of Griner’s release for other detained U.S. citizens?
Griner’s status as a celebrity undoubtedly played a role in expediting her release process, which takes years for most. Many U.S. citizens are not designated as “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. State Department, and for those who are, it typically takes longer than what the public witnessed in Griner’s case, St. Julian-Varnon said. Griner’s family was also in touch with the administration sooner than the families of many other detainees.
The news of Griner’s release has sparked more questions about the fates of other American detainees in Russia. Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018 after being accused of espionage, is still waiting for freedom. In addition to Whelan, U.S. teacher Marc Fogel was sentenced to 14 years at a labor camp after being arrested in August 2021 on drug charges.
Sarah Krivanek was charged with assaulting her boyfriend in November 2021. She claimed it was self defense after he allegedly hit her. Krivanek is still in Russian custody but is expected to be deported back to the United States this month.
In light of the attention Griner’s case received, the families of Whelan and Fogel have also attempted to bring more attention to their loved ones’ cases.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday after news of Griner’s release went public, Whelan shared his disappointment about the Biden administration’s efforts to secure his freedom.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
In his remarks Thursday, Biden noted that Griner never requested special treatment, and said his administration is committed to seeing that all wrongfully detained citizens are returned. Biden paid special attention to Whelan’s case, which has been most frequently referred to alongside Griner’s.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
During the press conference, Cherelle Griner also expressed support for Whelan’s family.
“BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home,” she said. “We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.”
St. Julian-Varnon said that given the public pressure to negotiate Whelan’s return simultaneously with Griner’s, the administration should have better communicated the complicated circumstances surrounding Whelan’s potential release.
“They should have said that Whelan’s case is different from the get-go because now you have all this unnecessary blowback against Brittney Griner,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “I think that puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on her and her family because the messaging wasn’t clear from the get-go about the difficulties of Paul Whelan’s case.”
St. Julian-Varnon said that no matter the pressure Biden receives, Russia ultimately has the final say on who they release and the timing of it all. She expressed skepticism about the administration’s ability to make a similar high-level exchange with Russia for other U.S. citizens.
“I just don’t see another swap like this happening anytime soon.”