Phoenix Mercury WNBA star Brittney Griner, held by Russia since February on alleged marijuana possession charges, pleaded guilty Thursday in a Russian court. Griner sent a hand-written letter to President Biden on July 4 and has received a response by the President this past week. The President’s letter has not been revealed publicly. The President and Vice President Kamala Harris have also spoken on the phone to Griner’s wife. Here are the top five aspects to know about the ongoing case.
1. Why Was She in Russia
According to media reports, Brittney Griner was in Russia to earn quadruple her base salary in the WNBA by playing basketball in Moscow over the winter-offseason. The high financial rewards compelled Griner to spend the last several years in Moscow for the winter despite the numerous safety concerns and growing political tensions between Vladimir Putin’s regime, Ukraine, and the West. The real reason Griner went, according to other WNBA players, was to supplement incomes and maintain game status. Currently, Griner makes around $1 million a year playing overseas for the UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Basketball Premier League and for comparison, during the 2021-2022 season, made around $221K playing for the Phoenix Mercury.
2. Hostage Diplomacy
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues and the United States and the European Union continue to enact harsh sanctions against Moscow and provide military support to Ukraine, many see the case against Brittney Griner as another case of hostage diplomacy. After her arrest, the U.S. government classified the arrest of Griner as unlawful and called the Russian government to release her from jail. American officials believe that her arrest is meant to pressure Washington and curtail its involvement in Ukraine. Russian officials argue that Griner’s case is legitimate, given that she possessed cannabis drugs banned by Russia. In response to her arrest, President Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s family to discuss the ongoing efforts to secure her release and vowed to do everything they could. When asked about the progress on securing Griner’s release, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated that the administration could not negotiate publicly with Russia.
3. Avoiding Severe Sentence
After pleading guilty to bringing cannabis products to Russia, American professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner, explained that she was packing quickly and did not mean to break the country’s law. According to sources, Griner’s lawyers revealed that the motivation behind their client’s decision was to set an example of being brave and take responsibility for her actions, representing a “role model for many people.” Her lawyers also hope that because of the background of her case and Griner’s contributions to global and Russian sport, her admittance of guilt will help her avoid a much harsher sentence. According to Russian law, Griner will face up to 10 years in solitary confinement, but some speculate that her sentence could further expand. Experts familiar with Russia’s criminal system state that around 99 percent of Russian court cases end in conviction and that the guilty plea may lead to a more lenient sentence.
4. Hashish Oil
According to Russian customs officials, Griner allegedly packed hashish oil in her bag in the form of vape cartridges. Hashish or hash is a drug made through the compression of cannabis with the highest levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hashish oil is a concentrated liquid formed when cannabinoids are extracted from cannabis, with consumers either smoking or vaping the liquid in cartridges and vapes. In the U.S., hash and hashish oil is illegal to use and possess under federal law but varies state by state. In Russia, cannabis drugs like hashish oil are illegal, and individuals having less than a few grams face fines or jail time for up to several weeks. According to reports, Russia has the highest number of people incarcerated for drug offenses related to cannabis per capita in Europe.
5. Release Effort
Ever since Griner faced arrest by Russian officials and recently pleaded guilty in court, the WNBA, friends, and family members have rallied around the imprisoned Basketball player, calling on the Biden administration and the State Department to do everything to secure her release. Media figures like Al Sharpton have also rallied behind the movement to release Griner from Moscow and raise awareness of this ongoing issue. Many of her supporters feel that the four-and-a-half month incarceration is enough. In a show of support for Griner, the WNBA has placed decals on its courts with her initials and her basketball number 32 and cleared the way for her team, Phoenix Mercury, to pay her without counting against the basketball team’s salary cap. On social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, celebrities, and fans of Griner showed their support for Griner’s release by posting the hashtag #FreeBrittneyGriner and wearing FreeBrittneyGriner t-shirts in solidarity.