03:53 - Source: CNN
WNBA star arrested in Russia on drug charges

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The news that Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-9 inch two-time Olympic Gold medalist, WNBA star with the Phoenix Mercury and one of the best basketball players on the planet, has been detained in Russia has the sports world – and anyone concerned about the plight of Americans in Russian custody – on edge. And with good reason.

Like many WNBA players, Griner spends time annually in Russia, playing for professional leagues that offer a salary multiple times larger than her WNBA compensation. Russian authorities have said Griner had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling a narcotic substance – an offense that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Peniel Joseph

The 31-year-old, who is also a powerfully visible figure in the LGBTQ community, suddenly finds her life ensnared in a geopolitical chess game controlled by Russian officials at an increasingly perilous and uncertain moment. While Griner’s fame and privilege could shield her somewhat, her identity as a Black gay woman athlete facing the Russian legal system is a precarious one, and as the war intensifies and diplomatic options wane, Americans must not look away.

For those asking what she was doing in Russia to begin with, Griner’s story puts in harsh light the gender equity gap in professional sports, where male NBA players receive guaranteed million-dollar contracts, while their female counterparts, like Griner, are compelled to hustle for every dollar, including playing overseas in countries such as Russia.

The devaluation of women’s sports extends beyond basketball to soccer, where stars such as Megan Rapinoe have forcefully advocated for pay equity – an issue that US Soccer, unlike the NBA, has taken recent (if limited) steps to address.

Griner’s predicament also comes as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian architect of the invasion of Ukraine that has galvanized world opposition, faces biting economic sanctions and is ratcheting up threatening rhetoric and violence on the ground.

While it is unclear how any of this may directly affect Griner, as an American gay athlete of color, she embodies multiple battlegrounds on which Putin has, in the past, exercised punishing authority or exerted influence. Putin’s bearing and actions as a strongman have made him a hero to White nationalists. His regime is known for its harsh treatment of LGBTQ people, including signing a 2013 so-called “gay propaganda” law and Putin’s self-presentation as a global champion for “traditional values.” At the same time, Putin has treated sport in Russia as a proving ground for dominance, a reality underscored by the banning of Russian athletes in multiple sports – the world’s attempt to hit Putin where it hurts.

The intersection of sport, sexuality and identity is an arena in which Griner has experience fighting for herself and winning. During Griner’s collegiate career at Baylor University, she became one of the first women basketball players to consistently dunk in the college game. At Baylor, a school where until 2015 the code of conduct characterized “homosexual acts” as “misuses of God’s gift,” Griner has also said she struggled to acquiesce to demands that she keep her sexuality to herself, cover up her tattoos and play the role of a more conventional athlete.

Since entering the WNBA in 2013, Griner has broken new ground as a public figure – the first out gay athlete to garner a shoe endorsement from Nike – as well as on the court. Now, Griner is at risk of being used as a pawn on the world stage as Russia is increasingly isolated and likely in search of leverage in the wake of its disastrous actions in Ukraine, which have revealed the depth and breadth of the Putin regime’s callous disregard for human life.

It remains unclear when last month Griner was arrested or where she is being held, and the growing anxiety and uncertainty those closest to her are expressing is shared by the friends and families of other Americans – such as Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan – in Russian custody. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, thanked supporters and asked for privacy on Instagram over the weekend, and in a more recent post said, “My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by. I miss your voice. I miss your presence.”

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    Russian authorities only released a picture of Griner, one month after being detained, after a growing outcry from her family, friends, the WNBA and social media. The White House refused to officially comment, citing privacy laws, but the timing of Griner’s detention, the slow release of proof of her safety and other alarming indicators offer reasonable worry that Griner’s fate is increasingly intertwined with Russia’s war.

    Ultimately, Brittney Griner’s fate will rest in the hands of Russian and American officials who will be negotiating her future behind closed doors. “There are no words to express the pain,” Cherelle posted to social media. That pain has made Brittney Griner one of the quiet faces of a human rights tragedy unfolding before the eyes of the world.