December 8, 2022
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For Brittney Griner, sports have been both a blessing and a curse.

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By the middle of the summer, three and half years had passed since Russian intelligence agents, working for the country’s latest iteration of its notorious KGB, stormed into American Paul Whelan’s Moscow hotel room, pinned him to the floor, and accused him of spying, for which the Russian judicial system eventually sentenced him to 16 years in a Mordovian gulag. Still, his story was little told. And when it was, I found after checking a database of 8,000-plus news sources including periodicals, websites and blogs, his and his family’s pleas for help were heard without much resound, rarely generating more than 100 reports per month. That despite desperate public protests like the one outside the White House in May.

But in July, Whelan’s plight suddenly gained public traction. Factiva, that news database, tallied nearly 3,000 hits on his name that month alone. And then more than 3,000 in August. And upward of 2,500 since then.

Why the uptick? The cultural permeation of sport.

For in July, basketball superstar Brittney Griner made her first court appearance since being detained at Sheremetyevo Airport outside of Moscow in February. Authorities there said a search of her luggage uncovered two vape cartridges with traces of cannabis, or marijuana, oil. Marijuana is illegal in Russia, recreationally and medicinally.

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Whether Griner accidentally, as she claimed, or purposefully brought what Russia considers contraband into its country is a moot point now. So, too, is if she’s been framed in a dubious legal system run by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, which invaded U.S.-allied Ukraine a week after Griner arrived. It also doesn’t matter what the loosening laws are for marijuana in Griner’s native United States, where cannabis activists protested Thursday outside the Russian Embassy.

The fact is, she was jailed on Russia’s drug smuggling charges pending a summer trial, in which she was convicted and sentenced to more than nine years in a penal colony presumably as frightening as that where Whelan is imprisoned.

And ever since, Whelan, most often described as a former Marine, has been linked to Griner, who is now the most well-known American political prisoner overseas because of her iconic status in basketball, with gold medals from two Olympics — Rio and Tokyo — and a EuroLeague Championship she won with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League. Ironically, she was arrested upon returning to play in the RPL for what her wife said was one last Russian season.

“I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late July of an upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart, “the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who’ve been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.”

That Whelan’s imprisonment is now being recalled as a result of Griner’s predicament, and that Griner is the most-famous of maybe 60 Americans detained or imprisoned under questionable circumstances overseas, is a perverted reminder of the magnetism of sports. As sports sociologists M. Patrick Cottrell and Travis Nelson pointed out in a 2010 “European Journal of International Relations” article on the role of sports as a platform for political opportunity unlike any other in the global theater, sports “ … are accessible and high-profile … receive regular and worldwide media coverage” and “can increase the potential availability of influential allies and supporters … to draw more attention to their cause and forge new alliances.”

The question is whether this application of sports fame will wind up a gift for Griner — and in turn Whelan, and others — as much as it has been a curse for the basketball star thus far.

I’m not going to pretend — as have many in sports, media, fans and executives alike — to possess any knowledge about how the White House is, or should be, trying to spring citizens like Griner and Whelan locked up abroad. (A television show titled by that phrase has turned such difficulties into entertainment.) I’m not going to speculate whether an athletic star of Griner’s stature from a prominent men’s sport would already be home after getting victimized in the same manner.

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After all, Griner, like Whelan, is a political prisoner now. We can say so with certainty given reports that both might only be freed in exchange for infamous convicts connected to Putin’s regime and held in U.S. facilities. For those who believe that if Griner were an NBA Finals MVP or Super Bowl-winning quarterback she’d be back on U.S. soil by now, such stardom could actually make her release and Whelan’s more difficult. Such prominence could demand an even larger haul of hoodlums than that which U.S. negotiators are said to be offering for her and Whelan’s release, which has been reported to include Viktor Bout, an international Russian arms dealer.

Bout quite possibly is more personally responsible than anyone on the planet over the last quarter-century for destabilizing sub-Saharan Africa, including the fueling of documented genocide and massacres in countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone. In that sense, from a national security point of view, the greater credence ascribed to a superstar in a men’s sport could make cobbling together a trade package with Russia even more repulsive. Griner’s alleged offense and Whelan’s aren’t nearly the equivalents of Bout’s crimes.

But Griner isn’t being forgotten. Hasn’t been forgotten, not like Emad Shargi and Kai Li and Jeffery Woodke and Eyvin Hernandez et. al. Her WNBA sisters said her name on her birthday, Oct. 18. Her NBA brothers joined that chorus, highlighted by NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry shouting her out on her 32nd birthday when he and his Golden State teammates received their championship rings.

“We hope that she comes home soon,” Curry told the crowd at that nationally televised game, “and that everybody’s doing their part to get her home.”

That hope should include both the most famous American political chit overseas, and everyone else, like Whelan, once forgotten.



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