Here’s a Hall of Fame-worthy bad idea: Former NBA player Dennis Rodman says he’s going to Russia to try to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. "I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl," Rodman told NBC News’s Jonathan Allen. "I'm trying to go this week."
Griner (who is a woman and not a girl) and was arrested at Moscow’s airport in February, was sentenced to nine years in prison this month on drug possession and smuggling charges. Her time in captivity has been harrowing and almost certainly a politically motivated way for the Kremlin to tweak the United States. U.S. officials initially dissuaded her family and teammates from publicly speaking out while working behind the scenes to secure her release. Now there are reportedly ongoing negotiations that could lead to a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia that would bring Griner home.
While Rodman has spent the last decade trying to raise his profile as a cultural diplomat of sorts, he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in his ability to help overturn Griner’s sentence. I’ll admit that his “diplomacy” with the North Korea leader Kim Jong Un that began in 2013 has been fascinating. But there’s been nothing to suggest that he can achieve a breakthrough in Russia.
Also, the connection Rodman forged with the North Korean dictator has more to do with Kim’s love of basketball than any diplomatic skills that Rodman possesses. I’m not really seeing any chance of a similar connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is more of an ice hockey and judo kind of guy.
Then there’s the little matter of just who’s paying for Rodman’s trip to Russia. His previous jaunts haven’t been on his own dime. In 2014, an Irish bookmaking company called Paddy Power signed on to sponsor his trip to North Korea. (The company distanced itself from Rodman ahead of the excursion but followed on financing to fulfill its contract.)
When I interviewed Rodman in 2017, he was mostly focused on pushing PotCoin, a marijuana-backed cryptocurrency that had sponsored his trip that year to North Korea. (It’s a darkly ironic connection given that Griner was sentenced for possessing less than a gram of marijuana oil in a vape cartridge.) Rodman (and PotCoin) had taken credit for the release of American student Otto Warmbier, who was evacuated that June just as Rodman was beginning his trip. A State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News at the time that "Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with the release."
If Rodman does wind up going to Russia, it won’t be for the right reasons.
It would deeply surprise me to learn that this trip would be the exception. I reached out to Prince Marketing, a public relations firm that has worked with Rodman in the past and still lists him as a client on their website, to ask about who would be sponsoring his trip to Russia. As of Monday afternoon, Prince Marketing had not responded.
Even if Rodman does touch down in Moscow this week, it’s unclear who his point of contact would be for any back-channel talks. As it stands, Griner already has the full support of the State Department, which in May declared that she had been “wrongfully detained.” Among the options currently being discussed as Griner appeals her case in the Russian courts is a prisoner swap, potentially trading the WNBA player and American executive Paul Whelan for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. And Rodman would more likely hurt that negotiation than help it, an unnamed U.S. official told NBC News.
“It’s public information that the administration has made a significant offer to the Russians and anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder release efforts,” the official said. That alone should be enough for Rodman to backtrack on his plans.
It’s entirely fair to argue that Griner’s case deserves more attention, but there is nothing that suggests that Rodman’s play for relevancy will be helpful. If Rodman does wind up going to Russia — and, honestly, it still seems like a big “if” to me — it won’t be for the right reasons. Any trip he takes will be focused on seeking attention for himself first, attention for whatever sponsorship he’s lined up second, leaving concern for the unjustly imprisoned Griner a distant third.