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Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury during a game against the Indiana Fever at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on September 6, 2021 in Indianapolis.
Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, in 2021.Michael Hickey / Getty Images, File

Russia arresting Brittney Griner is a troubling turn of events

Griner is being held in Russian custody. Her identity as a Black, queer woman makes the arrest all the more alarming. 


News that WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia last month is reverberating beyond the sports world. And there are signs it could grow into an even larger international incident. 

Griner is a WNBA champion, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star who also plays for the Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg when she’s not playing for the Phoenix Mercury. Over the weekend, multiple outlets reported that she’d been arrested for possession of hashish oil cartridges in Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport. The Russian Customs service released footage of Griner going through airport security, claiming that she had been apprehended in February. This means she may have already spent days, if not weeks, in Russian jail.

And that’s a terrifying place to be for a queer, Black woman in one of the more repressive countries on earth — especially when that country is looking for every possible point of leverage over its Western counterparts. 

Russia is known for being a nearly inhospitable country for LGBT people. The Russian government has banned same-sex marriage and is currently attempting to “liquidate” one of the country’s largest and most prominent LGBT rights organizations due to claims the group defies “traditional values.” 

Russia has also been widely criticized for enacting sexist policies that marginalize women. One of these — a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic violence — helped ignite Russia’s version of the #MeToo movement in 2018.

And I’ve written previously on the relationship between the Russian government and white nationalist groups, a bond that’s aided the widespread perception of Russia as the world’s last powerful, white ethnostate. 

All of these things taken together make for an incredibly worrying situation with no certain outcome. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia.” But Blinken said he couldn’t say more “given the privacy considerations.”

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., told CNN Monday that getting Griner out is “going to be very difficult” and noted Russia’s strict anti-LGBT laws. 

USA Basketball, the Phoenix Mercury and Griner’s wife have all shared messages supporting her release, but none of them, understandably, have a means to actually secure it. And each message is written with an understandably nonconfrontational tone, because getting Griner out will likely require negotiations with Vladimir Putin himself, a seemingly desperate warmongering autocrat.