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Brittney Griner is finally freed, but her peril is that of Black women in America

OP/ED: The conditions that brought the U.S. basketball player to Russia in the first place, and perhaps what have kept her there for so long, reflect the vulnerability that often comes with being a Black woman.
Image: Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during Game Three of the 2021 WNBA semifinals at Desert Financial Arena on Oct. 03, 2021 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Christian Petersen / Getty Images file; MSNBC

UPDATE (Dec. 8, 2022, 9:55 a.m. ET): On Thursday, WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed after 294 days in Russian captivity – the last month spent in one of Russia’s notoriously harsh penal colonies. The Biden administration negotiated her release from Russia in exchange for an arms dealer, according to a senior administration official.

President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates. Griner will be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio where she will receive care, a senior administration official said.

Griner’s return to the United States will cap a months-long saga that began in February when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later jailed on drug charges and in August, a Russian court found Griner guilty of drug smuggling and possession charges, handing her a sentence of nine years in prison.

When tennis star Serena Williams gave birth to her daughter in 2017, she nearly died because doctors did not believe her when she cried out in pain. As it turns out, Williams, the world's most famous athlete, was suffering from blood clots in her lungs. It would be hours before doctors agreed to do a CAT scan and rush to break up the clotting before it reached her heart. Despite all of her prestige and achievements, Williams was at the mercy of a medical system that is uniquely fatal for Black women.

The state of powerlessness Black women, including Serena Williams, are relegated to is a phenomenon sociologist and author Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses in her memoir “Thick: And Other Essays.” It "supersedes even the most powerful status cultures in all of neoliberal capitalism: wealth and fame," Cottom wrote.

The same can be said for American basketball player Brittney Griner, who has been sitting in a Russian prison cell for over five months for carrying 0.7 ounces of cannabis oil in her luggage. Cannabis from a vape cartridge which, her lawyer said, she only brought to Russia by accident. Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, pleaded guilty to drug charges, the result of which could put her behind bars for up to 10 years.

Griner, 32, is certainly a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Griner was imprisoned one week before Russia invaded Ukraine and has effectively become Vladimir Putin's political prisoner. Griner, a lesbian, has also found herself in the grip of a government that persecutes LGBTQ+ people to undermine democracy.

But the conditions that brought her to Russia in the first place, and perhaps what have kept her there for so long, are uniquely American, and they reflect the vulnerability that often comes with being a Black woman. Much like Williams' near-death experience, those conditions override Griner's status as one of the most dominant female basketball players in history.

The gender pay gap – particularly for Black women –that exists across the workforce in the U.S. is especially egregious in basketball, and it's what makes traveling overseas such an attractive option for many WNBA players like Griner. In 2019, half of the WNBA played in Europe and Asia during the league's off-season because they can expect to get paid more than they do at home. The average WNBA salary, around $100,000, is 1.5 percent of the average NBA salary, which is well over $7 million.

Russian teams, including UMMC Ekaterinburg, which Griner plays for, reportedly pay WNBA players more than $1 million annually. In her latest season playing with the Phoenix Mercury, Griner made $221,450.

The NBA's annual revenues are $7.92 billion, while the WNBA's $60 million — far less than the combined salaries of NBA players Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

That economic disparity translates into the coverage – or lack thereof – Griner's story has been swirling in the media for months. Yet, despite being the most consequential story in American sports, only one reporter showed up to the Mercury game in Los Angeles on Monday for player interviews.

"If it were LeBron James or Tom Brady, this would be news that would be in the headlines every day," Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham told the Los Angeles Times. "With B.G., it is, and it's not, it is, and it's not, it needs to be a consistent message out there until she's home."

"We in women's sports don't get as much coverage, we get 4 percent of the media, so this gets 4 percent of the attention it should be getting," Vanessa Nygaard, head coach of the Mercury, added. "There's more that can be done."

Broadly speaking, American media struggles to pay attention when anyone other than a white woman disappears, a phenomenon PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill called "missing white woman syndrome."

When it comes to Black and indigenous women, "our cases are not taken seriously, and no one is looking for us if we were to go missing," Derrica Wilson, Co-Founder, and CEO of the Black and Missing Foundation, told The Reid Out in September.

In Griner's case, the State Department determined in May that she is being "wrongfully detained," and the White House insists Griner is a priority. But Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, has grown increasingly frustrated that the U.S. hasn’t done more to bring her wife home.

“I’m frustrated that 140 days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to our family and our friends,” Griner said at a rally for her wife in Los Angeles in July. “I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice.”

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow arranged a call for the couple on their fourth anniversary in June, but despite 11 attempts to reach Cherelle, no one was in the State Department office to make the connection – because it was the weekend.

"I have zero trust in my government," Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press at the time. "If I can't trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife's behalf to come home?"

It seems only fitting that the most fervent advocates for Griner's return are other Black women – 1,200 to be exact. In July, a group of Black women civil rights, business, media, and sports penned a letter to the White House, admonishing the Biden administration for not taking swifter action to negotiate Griner's release. (MSNBC's Joy Reid, Tiffany Cross, and Amber Ruffin, a Peacock host, also signed the letter.)

"We are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to align with the actions taken to date," the women write. "We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely."

"America cannot fail Brittney Griner," they wrote. Perhaps in some ways, we already have.

Natalie Johnson is a freelance writer and illustrator who focuses on racial justice and gender equity. She is a former segment producer for Black News Channel, MSNBC, and Vice News.