Brittney Griner is still in jail. And last week, the Phoenix Mercury star was officially sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges. Griner’s fate is excessive and unjust, that much is clear. But more than that, it’s a stunning indictment of how America continues to fail Black women – both on and off its shores.
Griner is one of the most accomplished and impressive female basketball players in the world. After an astonishing college career and becoming a number one WNBA draft pick, the ESPY award-winning, all-American champion who has also helped secure multiple Olympic gold medals for team USA is widely thought of as one of the best to ever play the game. And yet, in the early days of her arrest, there was near radio silence about her unfair detention.
To put this into perspective, there is no universe in which an arrest involving Michael Phelps, Roger Federer or Tom Brady would not immediately make headline news across the globe. It simply would not play out that way.
But regardless of her elite status, the US had a duty to fight for Griner and her freedom, and failed woefully to meet that duty. Trevor Reed – a former US marine who himself was recently freed from a Russian prison after the government negotiated a prisoner exchange on his behalf – said it best: “In my opinion, the White House has the ability to get them out extremely fast, and they clearly have chosen not to do that. So no, in my opinion, they’re not doing enough.”
And while it’s clear that the US government didn’t fight nearly hard enough for her in those crucial early days, the ways that America failed Griner go well beyond the fact that she’s staring down nearly a decade behind bars.
The first of those failures involves why she was in Russia to begin with. The WNBA champion was entering the country to play with the Russian Premier League, as she’s done during every offseason for the last several years. But it’s not just for fun. WNBA salaries are abysmally low, and there are only 14 players in the entire league who earn $200,000 or more. Griner is one of them, clocking in at an average of $221,515 a year in her latest contract. Comparatively, peers like Kevin Durant and LeBron James averaged $48,554,830 and $42,827,766 respectively. This disparity means that female players – even the most seasoned and talented like Griner – are often forced to play in foreign leagues during their WNBA downtime in order to supplement their income.
Basketball aside, though, it’s impossible to ignore the tragic irony that surrounds Griner’s situation. She is stuck in a diplomatic quagmire between two countries that hate each other, but also hate everything she is; Black, queer and female.
As her agent Lindsay Colas said in a Thursday release following news of her sentence, “Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.”
Colas’s qualification of Griner as a political pawn is right on the money, but it would be remiss not to point out who Griner is, and why she made such an easy target. Griner is a gay Black woman caught between two countries that each have their own deep, longstanding cultures of anti-Blackness and hostility toward LGBTQ+ people.
And while it’s left to be seen whether or not she will spend the next near decade in Russian jail, all hope isn’t lost. Former UN ambassador Bill Richardson, who has been working alongside Griner’s team, says he is optimistic about a potential prisoner exchange that would free Griner.
Still, no matter how this goes, the damage will already have been done. Griner will have already languished in detention for months, an event that she will no doubt need time to heal and recover from. And when we look back on what happened when a Black, queer woman who is one of the country’s most important sports figures was unjustly imprisoned abroad, this will always be America’s legacy.
Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist