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Glimpses of Brittney Griner Show a Complicated Path to Release


100 forty-one days.

That’s how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That’s how long she has been stuck in the course of a high-stakes staredown between the USA and Russia at precisely the fallacious time, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia continues his horrendous invasion of Ukraine and echoes the return of the Cold War.

100 forty-one days. That’s how long Griner has been in limbo.

What terrible uncertainty and fear she must feel, facing a decade in a Russian prison if she is convicted. Griner captured that emotion in her recent letter to President Biden. “I’m terrified I is likely to be here ceaselessly,” she wrote. She added, “Please don’t ignore me.”

The seven-time All-Star center for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty on Thursday, admitting fallacious doing. In so many words, Griner and her lawyer said her troubles began with a mistake: She was readying quickly for her flight to Russia in February and inadvertently packed the smoking cartridges with the small amounts of hashish oil — lower than a single gram, in accordance with prosecutors. She said she had no intention of breaking Russian law.

Experts say a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system entirely stacked against defendants. Griner can have chosen to not fight a battle she couldn’t win, helping speed her case to a conclusion.

We don’t know right away. The Mercury center’s teammates, supporters and wife, Cherelle Griner, haven’t been in a position to speak along with her directly. With the war in Ukraine, all we in America have seen or heard from Griner has been from appearances at a Moscow-area courtroom that she has attended in handcuffs.

Uncertainty and complication hover over this awful affair. Russian media outlets have claimed that talks of a possible prisoner exchange are already underway, though U.S. officials haven’t confirmed this. One floated swap would come with Russian national Viktor Bout, who has been imprisoned in the USA since 2012 on a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to individuals who said they planned to kill Americans. During his sentencing, prosecutors called Bout “among the many world’s most successful and complicated arms traffickers.” He’s referred to as the Merchant of Death.

That lopsided prospective deal shows the issue of negotiating Griner’s release. Wouldn’t it be a balanced exchange to swap a basketball star who carried hashish oil into Russia for a person found guilty of participating in a world plot against Americans?

Paul Whelan, one other American being held in Russia, has served two years of a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he has denied. Is it fair to push for Griner’s release before Whelan’s? Should the USA negotiate for him to be included in a deal, even when doing so delays each their releases?

Complicating matters further are problems with race, gender and sexuality.

Griner is tattooed, dreadlocked, Black and three inches shy of seven feet tall. She doesn’t conform to broadly accepted gender stereotypes. She is married to a lady and is an outspoken L.G.B.T.Q. activist. Putin has a well-documented disdain for L.G.B.T.Q. people, which only heightens her supporters’ fears for her well-being.

Her appearance, sexuality and outspokenness mean that the contempt for Griner is just as thick in some quarters of the USA. That makes it fair to wonder if the outrage from Americans could be louder and more pervasive if Griner were a male star athlete who fit neatly into a historically accepted role.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” said Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach with the Mercury. “It’s an announcement concerning the value of ladies. It’s an announcement concerning the value of a Black person. It’s an announcement concerning the value of a gay person.”

Nygaard could also be right. Male athletes are the beneficiaries of a sports ecosystem during which their leagues garner more TV time, their endorsements generate more cash and their accomplishments are more loudly lauded. If this were James in custody — or Stephen Curry or Tom Brady — it stands to reason that their fame would push a more fervent mainstream call for release than has been the case for Griner.

Then again, imagine what Russia could be asking in return for LeBron James: The ransom would probably far exceed a single arms dealer languishing in an American prison, especially given the strain between Biden and Putin.

If this were James in custody, well, an entire lot greater than just a few hundred people would have shown as much as rally for his release. On Wednesday, an estimated 300 people gathered on the Mercury’s arena, Phoenix’s Footprint Center, to indicate their support for Griner. The constructing seats 17,000.

I visited the world in April for a Mercury preseason game and was surprised by the muted acknowledgment of Griner in a city where she has given a lot. Referred to as B.G., she helped lead the Mercury to a W.N.B.A. title in 2014 but is as admired there for helping the homeless and championing L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Local sports-radio announcers hardly mentioned her, as a substitute happening and on concerning the Phoenix Suns’ competing within the N.B.A. playoffs.

The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

On the time, Griner’s Mercury teammates were following the lead of her advisers, who had decided to remain low-key and never raise a ruckus which may draw Putin’s ire. It was clear the players desired to be more forthright. As they spoke of how much they loved their teammate and followed the advised path, the fierceness and pain of their eyes showed me that they desired to say more.

The approach flipped just a few weeks later when the U.S. State Department declared that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” The league and its players began to roar — similar to they often do on pressing social issues. Teams paid tribute to Griner by pasting her initials on home courts leaguewide. Over social media, in news conferences and interviews, players demanded that Biden and the White House do whatever was needed to bring her home.

“Free B.G.,” said DeWanna Bonner, of the W.N.B.A.’s Connecticut Sun, talking to the press. “We’re B.G. We love B.G. Free her.”

The N.B.A. joined the chorus. Players wore “We’re B.G.” T-shirts to practices held throughout the N.B.A. finals. James, Curry and plenty of other stars spoke out, demanding her release. Athletes from other sports joined in. After Griner’s guilty plea on Thursday, Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, wore a white jacket with Griner’s initials stitched into her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What a roller coaster of strategy and emotion. Thursday’s hearing brought one other searing twist, seeing Griner there in court, begging for mercy.

“This example with B.G., it’s hard for everyone on our team,” Nygaard said before Thursday night’s home game against the Liberty.

The court hearing and request for forgiveness. The pictures of Griner, hands certain, eyes wide, surrounded by Russian police.

“When your friend is in peril,” Nygaard added, and that friend is saying “that they’re scared, those things are hard to get away from.”

100 forty-one days, and counting.

Brittney Griner is removed from home, and we have no idea when she might be let loose.

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