Washington is on the clock as WNBA star Brittney Griner languishes in Russian custody

Brittney Griner is a pawn, caught between Russia and the U.S. during a particularly tense time in the relationship between the two superpowers, writes CBC Sports senior contributor Morgan Campbell.

31-year-old a pawn caught between Russia, U.S. at a tense time between nations

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Kimki, Russia, on Thursday. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to drug possession charges. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It's a point of fact that Brittney Griner is guilty of the drug charges levelled against her in Russia. 

The WNBA star and two-time Olympic Gold medallist has spent every day since Feb. 17 in pretrial custody after Russian authorities found a small quantity of cannabis oil in her luggage at the Moscow Airport. Her trial was set to start this week, but instead the 31-year-old all-star power forward entered a guilty plea, and hinted at an explanation while requesting clemency from the famously austere Russian legal system.

"There was no intent," Griner reportedly told a Russian judge while entering her plea. "I didn't want to break the law."

Her lawyer, Alexander Boikov, explained that she had packed her suitcase in a hurry, and accidentally brought along the tainted cartridge.

It's also a point of common sense that Griner, who plays with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season, is a pawn, caught between Russia and the U.S. during a particularly tense time in the relationship between the two superpowers. Even if Griner actually did what Russian authorities alleged, we should look skeptically at everything they're telling us. 

Griner was charged with importing a "significant amount" of drugs into Russia. The cartridge in question contained 0.7 grams of cannabis.

WATCH | WNBA star Brittney Griner faces 10 years in prison for drug charges in Russia:

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia

3 months ago
Duration 4:03
U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court to drugs charges that could see her face 10 years in prison.

This is the charge and the allegation Russia expects the rest of us to reconcile? A decade in a prison colony for a quantity of drugs that clearly qualifies as "for personal use"?

To paraphrase the old saying, many of us following Griner's case were born at night, but we weren't born last night. Russian cops could have charged Griner with something more in line with her alleged offence, threatened her with the local equivalent of a light sanction and moved on. But they pressed ahead with a process that defies any sense of proportion between potential punishment and alleged crime, while conveniently putting the U.S. in a sticky diplomatic position.

So where to from here?

U.S. president Joe Biden's administration said in a statement released earlier this week it will "pursue every avenue to bring Brittney home." But if those avenues don't lead to a prisoner swap that brings Griner home quickly, what are we even doing?

To recap, the Russian government has reportedly proposed freeing Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer, nicknamed "The Merchant of Death," currently serving 25 years in federal prison. Given Bout's resumé, any apprehension U.S. officials feel about a straight-up trade is understandable. Bout sold actual weapons that can kill and maim actual people. Griner had a little hash. Not even the most prudish anti-cannabis crusader would put those two offences in the same league.

Once released from prison, Bout might slide back into his old networks, old habits and old crimes.

Griner? She would — likely, hopefully — work her way back into a lead role in the WNBA, where she was named an honourary All-Star starter on Thursday morning.

WATCH | Brittney Griner won't get fair trial, expert says:

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner appears in Russian court

3 months ago
Duration 2:04
U.S. women's basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in Russian court Friday to face cannabis possession charges. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years behind bars. Deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy supported Griner in court, saying the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained the WNBA player.

So if the Biden administration isn't already on the phone trying to arrange a swap, maybe they've deduced, reasonably, that the two people involved aren't of equal value. Maybe exchanging the wrongfully-detained Griner for the justifiably-imprisoned Bout looks like a win for a Russian regime that's been dealing in bad faith ever since Griner was first hauled into custody.

But the Russians also win if the U.S. lets her languish in custody.

The U.S. basketball community gets it, which is why they've worked so hard to keep Griner in the spotlight this season. Every WNBA player's jersey is adorned with a patch bearing Griner's number 42. Earlier this month, Dawn Staley, head coach of the women's team at the University of South Carolina, added a pointed Twitter message at President Biden to her long series of public statements in support of Griner.

"#FreeBrittneyGriner 138 days our friends and sister @brittneygriner has been wrongfully detained in a Russia prison," Staley tweeted. "@POTUS can you please read her recent cry to you and prioritize as if she was one of your kids…please."

Russian authorities, predictably, aren't impressed. Earlier this week, a Russian diplomat named Sergei A. Ryabkov accused the White House, along with Griner's supporters, of "fomenting hype," hoping to sway judicial opinion.

"The American side's attempts to … make noise in the public environment are understandable," Ryabkov told reporters in Russia. "But they don't help to practically resolve issues."

But the initial publicity, stirred up by Griner's supporters, wasn't for Russia's benefit. If the will of the American people could sway the Russian regime's behaviour, Vladimir Putin would never have sent troops into Ukraine, or co-signed on to the country's widespread interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart sports a shirt supporting Brittney Griner during an NBA Finals practice session. (@NBA/Twitter)

That activism has always been aimed at a domestic audience. To raise awareness among sports fans that an elite American athlete is facing 10 years in prison for a crime that might trigger a fine in North America. To signal to the public that the quiet diplomacy U.S. officials pursued in the weeks immediately after Griner's arrest hadn't budged the Russians. And to jolt the U.S. government into action.

In late June, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow tried to arrange a phone call between Griner and her wife, Cherrelle. It would have been their first conversation since Griner's arrest, but the call dropped and they never spoke. A technical glitch, for sure, but hardly a sign that U.S. diplomats were treating this case with the urgency it deserved.

Public pressure isn't a miracle cure, but it helps in general, and has been useful in keeping Griner's plight front-of-mind.

Still, there's the process.

Russia wants to swap prisoners but has made clear it wouldn't negotiate until Griner's court case was settled. Griner and her lawyers could have undertaken a long and costly trial, but in a country where the odds of an acquittal are even more remote than they are in the U.S., fighting this case likely looked like a waste of several weeks and countless dollars. If a conviction was inevitable, a guilty plea serves the same purpose in less time, and fast-forwards us to this point.

Which point?

The point where the U.S. can call Russia's bluff, because they also have something Russia wants. If Bout is that valuable, Moscow can hand Griner over so she can recover from this trauma, rebuild her life, her marriage, and, hopefully, her basketball career.

We in the sports media like the idea of a trade. We understand those deals. We speak that language.

But it's also a little like a draft.

And Washington is on the clock.


Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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