Calls to “Free Brittney” are growing once again on social media, except this time they refer not to pop star Britney Spears, but WNBA player Brittney Griner.
The Phoenix Mercury center has been detained in Russia over drug charges since mid-February, when officials at the Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges in her luggage that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis. The Russian state news agency Tass said on March 17 that Griner’s detention has been extended for another two months.
US politicians that include former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush are now calling for more attention to Griner’s case, with some arguing she is being held as a political prisoner.
Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star, has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014. Many WNBA players are lured by overseas contracts to supplement their US salaries: Whereas Griner is on track to earn $228,000 playing for the Mercury this year, she reportedly makes around four times that playing one season in Russia.
Playing abroad can also be a way for WNBA players to stay competitive if they don’t get as much court time as they’d hoped for back home.
Griner is one of a dozen WNBA players who played in Russia or Ukraine this past season, but all others have left since Ukraine was invaded on Feb. 24.
While Russia’s motivations for detaining Griner aren’t totally clear, there are fears she’ll be used as a pawn during a tense moment for US-Russia relations.
Politicians and social justice advocates calling for Griner’s release argue much more attention should be paid to her case. Griner is an openly queer Black woman in a country where LGBTQ people are targeted, Arizona State University law professor Valena Beety noted in an op-ed for AZ Central. The same stereotypes that lead to disproportionate arrests of Black Americans for drug possession in the US may very well have played a role in Griner’s detention in Russia, she argued. It’s also easy to imagine Griner’s case being taken more seriously if she was a high-profile white male athlete like Tom Brady.
The US State Department said on March 15 they’re doing everything they can to support Griner and her family, while WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on March 16 that the organization is staying quiet publicly while pushing “more privately behind the scenes” for the player’s release.