Brittney Griner
The Phoenix Mercury star has been in custody in Russia since February. Credit: Lorie Shaull

Originally published by The 19th

A Russian judge on Thursday sentenced WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony for drug possession and smuggling, in addition to a $1 million ruble fine, after being held for months in what the U.S. government has classified as a “wrongful detainment.” 

Griner’s case, which was first reported in March, has been followed closely by queer Black women and nonbinary activists, who told The 19th that her plight is personal to them. The WNBA star is one of the most famous, and most visible, Black lesbians in the world — and her case highlights the racial disparities that Black women are subjected to. 

“What she’s experiencing isn’t foreign to us,”said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. 

The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found in 2017 that one-third of women in U.S. prisons identify as lesbian or bisexual — and people of color, especially Black people, have long been over-policed, especially when it comes to drug charges. 

York said that Griner’s case feels personal to her and other Black LGBTQ+ people “because she’s one of us” — but also because of the circumstances surrounding her detainment. That Griner was stopped to begin with and detained while wearing a hoodie that said “Black lives for peace” only drives those feelings deeper, she said.

Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities found less than a gram of cannabis oil and vape cartridges in her luggage, though officials waited several weeks to notify the United States. She pleaded guilty to drug charges prior to the conviction — which her lawyers said last month was a decision made in the hopes of avoiding a severe sentence. The judge on Thursday said that Griner’s time spent imprisoned since February would be included in her sentencing. 

Griner can appeal the sentence via a written statement within 10 days of her verdict. A lawyer for Griner did not return requests for comment by publication time, but The Associated Press reports that her attorneys expect a hearing next week in Moscow regional court. 

American officials, whose initial public response was criticized as slow, are still working to bring Griner back. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last week that he had discussed a proposal for the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine detained in Russia, as part of a prisoner swap. 

Blinken on Thursday said that Griner’s conviction and sentencing spotlights the agency’s concerns with the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions, adding that the agency still plans to work to bring Griner and Whelan home. 

Soon after Griner’s sentencing, President Joe Biden repeated the United States’ stance that Russia is wrongfully detaining Griner, and said his administration would continue to work towards her release. He urged Russia “to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.” 

Imadé Nibokun Borha is founder of the nonprofit Depressed While Black, which connects clients to Black therapists and sends Black beauty supplies to psychiatric patients. She said watching Griner’s verdict reminded her of what the United States has done to Black people for centuries. 

“It’s really triggering to see a queer Black person in a cage,” she said. “It makes me think about how Black women, Black queer women, how we’re considered disposable in our society.” 

Borha sees the verdict ultimately as the criminalization of Black self-care. The judge on Thursday acknowledged, while laying out the circumstances  that led to Griner’s verdict, that the WNBA star stated she needed the cannabis oil to aid her recovery from a sports injury. 

“It’s concerning that Brittney has helped so many people, entertained so many people, inspired so many people, and yet she’s alone in a cell,” Borha said. 

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ+ Task Force, has had a signed Griner jersey hanging in her office since the WNBA star was arrested in February. The Phoenix Mercury jersey displays the name of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in her Louisville apartment in 2020 — a connection that strikes Johnson with more weight now, as Griner’s verdict comes just as the Justice Department charges officers involved with Taylor’s death. 

“These two women have nothing in common, except they’re Black women and have been devalued and not protected,” she said. 

Watching Griner’s verdict on Thursday — and watching the basketball star await that verdict while in a cage — was devastating to Johnson. 

“I see myself in her. I see my family in her. I see the growing numbers of women in this country in prison for petty, petty crimes,” she said. She broke down in tears at one point when watching the sentence, and although her emotional reaction in one way felt strange since she doesn’t know Griner personally, it still feels so personal. 

“It feels like we’re under attack everywhere. Queer people are under attack everywhere. Black people are under attack everywhere. Women seem to be under attack everywhere. And to be a queer Black women from the United States at this time, it’s like there’s a target on your back,” she said. 

On the White House’s response to Griner’s sentencing, Johnson wants to know what escalation looks like in order to get her home. 

In her closing statement on Thursday, Griner apologized to her teammates, fans, and to the city of Yekaterinburg, where the Russian women’s basketball team that Griner has frequently played on is based — which she said had become her “second home.” She said that she never meant to break any laws in Russia, telling the judge: “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, it doesn’t end my life here.” 

“I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, my Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home. I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said. 

Griner has been playing in Russia to supplement her income — which more than half of WNBA players do, according to an April op-ed penned by Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who noted that “top athletes can make six to seven times the maximum WNBA salary overseas — and the disparity as recently as 2019 was 10 to 15 times more than WNBA salaries.” That Griner and other WNBA players must go overseas to supplement their salaries also speaks to the pay equity disparity in women’s sports, York said. 

The verdict was heartbreaking and scary to watch, said Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights — and pointed to how alone Griner is. And although advocates expected Griner to be convicted, in light of Russia’s track record with criminal trials, it still struck a chord. 
“It doesn’t feel fair,” Rupert-Gordon said.

In a joint statement, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday’s verdict “is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected,” adding that the leagues are still committed to her safe return home. 

“It is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States,” the statement read. The WNBPA union urged Blinken and his Russian counterpart Lavrov to discuss the proposed release plan for Griner, saying in a statement: “It is Day 168. It is time that BG comes home swiftly and safely.”

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