By Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News
As the Russian military invasion of Ukraine enters its second month and diplomatic relations between the US and Russia are at their most strained point in decades, seven-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner is being held as a political prisoner by Russian authorities. As famed sports analyst and journalist Dave Zirin recently wrote for MSNBC News, “While Griner’s detention has received a measure of media attention, the fact that she was in Russia in the first place demands its own examination… Like most professional women’s players, who make a microcosmic fraction of what the men make in the NBA, this kind of international play is essential for supplementing their income.” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Zirin about the current status of Griner’s detention, why sports media hasn’t made Griner’s case a bigger story, and what can be done to bring her home safely.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation, where he also hosts The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast. He is an internationally renowned sports analyst, a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC, and Democracy Now!, and the author of ten books on the politics of sports, including most recently The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. It’s been one month since Russian military troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and diplomatic relations between the US and Russia are at their most strained point in many decades.
And yet, as we speak, seven time WNBA all-star Brittney Griner is being held in detention by Russian authorities. And that detention has reportedly been extended until May 19, according to the Russian state news agency TASS. As famed sports analyst and journalist Dave Zirin recently wrote for MSNBC news, “Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow reportedly in mid February for the alleged possession of vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Aside from a mugshot that circulated in early March, she hasn’t been seen since, and reports on her status have been sparse. A drug offense could get her up to 10 years in a Russian prison.
While Griner’s detention has received a measure of media attention, the fact that she was in Russia in the first place demands its own examination. Besides playing for the Phoenix Mercury, the 6-foot-9 Griner is a basketball titan overseas, where she plays for the Russian league, UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA off-season. In 2021, she helped the Russian team win its fifth Euro League Women’s Championship. Like most professional women’s players, who make a microcosmic fraction of what the men make in the NBA, this kind of international play is essential for supplementing their income.”
As Sue Hove, former executive director of ESPN and co-author of Brittney Griner’s 2015 memoir In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, told Zirin in an email exchange, “Brittney’s detainment in Russia also once again shines the spotlight on an unfortunate truth: that the vast majority of WNBA players earn their living overseas. A lot of casual sports fans still don’t know this, which kind of blows my mind. But that just shows you how much more work needs to be done when it comes to raising awareness around equity issues in women’s sports.”
To talk about the immense international injustice of Brittney Griner’s detention, what it says about the state of professional women’s sports that Griner was in Russia to begin with, and what can be done to bring the WNBA star home safely, I’m honored to be joined by Dave Zirin himself, who is sports editor for The Nation, where he also hosts The Nation‘s Edge of Sports Podcast. He is an internationally renowned sports analyst, a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC and Democracy Now, and he is the author of 10 books on the politics of sports, including most recently The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. Dave, thank you so much for joining me today, man.
Dave Zirin: Oh, it’s great to be here, Max. Thanks for having me.
Maximillian Alvarez: So you’ve been doing a lot of really crucial reporting on this, and I’m really grateful to you for coming on. And I wanted to ask if you could first help us break down, maybe expanding on the quotes that I read from your MSNBC report, just what exactly is happening or what we know right now about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia.
Dave Zirin: Well, since I wrote that article over at MSNBC, a member of the US consular’s office has been able to visit Brittney Griner and has reported back only that she is in “good condition.” Now that is a relief because since the February arrest we’ve really known nothing. Absolutely nothing. All we’ve known for sure is that Brittney Griner’s mugshot was paraded in front of Russian state media and all sorts of pronouncements were made on Russian state media about the importance of this trial and prosecution, already speaking about Griner as if she was guilty. And of course, you can’t separate what Griner is going through from the larger, as you put it, the geopolitical situation right now with diplomatic relations being all but broken off between Russia and the United States. That makes Brittney Griner a political prisoner. And that’s my argument in this.
I mean, even though there’s a part of me that believes that anybody who’s wrapped up in the international war on drugs, particularly the international war on cannabis, is inherently a political prisoner. But in this particular case, I think you have to look at the charges with a real sort of side eye. And yet I see so many people saying things like, well, she shouldn’t have been carrying those hashish cartridges through the airport, and things like that. And it’s like, I don’t know why we’re assuming that Brittney Griner is guilty. We shouldn’t assume that about anybody. You’re innocent until proven guilty. That’s a fundamental principle. Yet in this case I think too many people on this side of the pond in the United States are quick to write Brittney Griner off.
I mean, what I’ve been saying over and over again is that if this was Tom Brady in a Russian prison, every single day on ESPN there would be updates and the amount of international pressure to get Brady home would be tremendous. But Brittney Griner: WNBA, disrespected. Black woman, disrespected. A queer woman, disrespected. And it’s almost like they don’t even have a language – And when I say they I mean US sports media – Don’t even have a language to speak about Brittney Griner and speak about her condition and her plight at this point. I mean, can you imagine facing 10 years behind bars in the context of what is going on right now anyway between the United States and Russia? I mean, we should be raising all kinds of holy hell right now. But we’re not. And I think the reasons for that very much lie in the issues of race, gender, and sexuality, and the disrespect that we have in this country for women’s sports.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I think that’s very well put. And as someone who has been navigating that sports media scene from a principled, progressive place for many years, I was curious if I could just quickly follow up on that and ask, what maybe do folks watching this not know about what goes on behind the scenes when folks are determining whether or not this is a story worth covering that extensively?
Dave Zirin: Well, the first thing… That decision is made, honestly, [by asking] does this have anything to do with the National Football League? And if it doesn’t have anything to do with the National Football League, I don’t care what month it is, immediately it goes on a second tier. Then on that second tier: does it have anything to do with LeBron James? If it doesn’t have anything to do with LeBron James, all of a sudden it goes to a third tier. Then there’s the question of women’s sports. Is it women’s soccer? Is it women’s gymnastics? Oh, it’s not that? Then it goes lower to another tier.
And then finally it’s the WNBA, which has a completely committed fan base. It has fans in cities across the country. It has higher ratings now than it did. And yet it’s something that, in the sports media, it doesn’t get nearly the equitable coverage that it possibly could. I hear people say all the time, well, the WNBA players shouldn’t be paid because their sport’s not very popular. But it’s like, if all anybody ever gives you is Coke and Pepsi, how are you supposed to judge whether or not orange juice is good? The WNBA is the orange juice. And yet we’re fed this steady diet. It’s a monochromatic diet of the kinds of foods that we’re told to eat. And those usually rely around the National Football League, LeBron James, and the rest.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I do even just personally, when I saw your first story about this, which was how I learned about it, I immediately thought back to the first time I saw Griner slam at home. I think it was maybe in college or something. I was like, yeah, why isn’t this a big story? This is absolutely bonkers. And I know that’s been essentially the story of the struggle of the WNBA since and even before it began. And I wanted to sort of build on that. Because one thing that you made very clear in your piece for NBC and your writing for The Nation is that there’s a larger issue that’s made very clear here that has to do with why Brittney Griner was in Russia in the first place. Could you talk about that a bit?
Dave Zirin: Yeah. I want to talk about that. And then if I could, I’d like to talk a little bit more about the silence that’s accompanying her case, because I feel like I’ve given a half picture about why there’s so much silence. And I’d love to give the full picture if I could. First and foremost, the exact number is 50% of all WNBA players, in the off-season, go overseas. And they do that to supplement their income, which is usually around like mid five figures to low six figures. And for a lot of people listening, that might sound like a heck of a wage. But when you’re usually done playing by the time you’re in your mid twenties that money goes away very quickly.
So to supplement that income, they go overseas. And some of the countries they go overseas to are not very friendly to some of the democratic norms that they might be used to in the United States. Although, we could do a whole show about how those democratic norms aren’t necessarily always worth the paper they’re printed on. But when you go to Russia, when you go to Turkey, when you go to Jordan, you have to watch your Ps and Qs a little bit or you can get in a lot of trouble locally. That being said, one of the perks of going overseas for these players is that oftentimes you’re under the protective wing of the owner of whatever team you’re playing for, and that’s usually an oligarch of some sort. They usually make sure that you have a pretty nice life while you’re over there making more money than you could ever make in the WNBA.
And that factors into this too, because it says, I think Brittney Griner was targeted at the airport when she was brought to the side and said, let’s check your bag. They said it was because the dog smelled the oil in her bag and that’s why it happened. I look at that with a real side eye. Because remember, Brittney Griner is 6 foot 9. It’s not like she’s wearing a baseball cap and nobody knows who she is. Women’s basketball is a big deal in Russia. People knew who she was. People knew she was a prominent American. And at the time, she’s trying to get the hell out of Russia because it’s clear in mid-February that the war clouds are forming all over the place. And for them to put her in custody right at that moment where relations were that delicate and balancing on the head of a pin, it just stinks to high heaven to me, top to bottom.
Now about the silence though, because I do believe that the reason why the sports media has been silent has to do with racism, sexism, homophobia, all the things that we discussed. But then there’s the other silence. And that’s the silence from the WNBA, silence from teammates, and silence that’s been called for by Brittney Griner’s partner, who has just asked for privacy and silence. Now, this is also problematic, I want to say. Why are they being silent? And I know this for a fact, that they’re being silent on the advice of the State Department and on the advice of attorneys who are saying that to negotiate getting Brittney Griner home, we have to not make too loud a stink about this. Because if we make too loud a stink, then Brittney Griner is going to be seen as some sort of trophy for Vladimir Putin and it’ll make it more difficult for her to come home.
I’m a believer that whether you’re silent or whether you are loud about getting a political prisoner out from behind bars, these are tactical questions. And I know folks, Maximillian, around you who worked on the case of Marshall Eddie Conway, not to mention numerous other cases of political prisoners in the United States, know that there is a tactical question. Like, do you let the lawyers do their work, or do you raise hell? And maybe at the beginning, those first couple weeks in February where, frankly, nobody really knew where Brittney Griner was, maybe that could have been a time for quiet negotiations. But the time for quiet negotiations has passed. I mean, Russia is breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States. What’s the State Department supposed to do then? Then our only choice is to hold Brittney Griner’s name up to the light.
So I’m beyond sympathetic with Brittney Griner’s friends, colleagues, certainly family. And I feel like they’re being led in an incorrect direction by the State Department and by the attorneys who are working on this. I mean, I’ve been interviewing people who do this for a living, people who do this kind of high stakes, let’s call them hostage negotiations, to get prisoners extradited from countries that have difficult relations with the United States. And one of the things that they say to me over and over again is that, look, if we’re still exercising with silence as a strategy to get Brittney Griner home, then we don’t really understand what we’re doing.
And that strategy, it may help the government, the United States. That’s more of a strategy for what US foreign policy is right now. They don’t want Brittney Griner’s name to be such a big deal because they want to make sure that she doesn’t turn into that kind of bargaining chip that Putin can use. But on the flip side, if we raise hell, then we can actually embarrass, humiliate Putin at a moment where his situation is very delicate, at a moment where he’s losing, at least militarily. And he’s certainly losing politically and ideologically in this war. All he has is overwhelming firepower and the ability to destroy at this point. And that seems to be the only strategy that they have left.
In this context, we can raise up Brittney Griner’s name and turn her into a headache for Vladimir Putin at a moment where he has many headaches, at which point he can just send her home. With a word he could send her home. So that’s where we are right now. And I just think that the strategy of silence is one that we need to get beyond. Because, tactically, at this point it makes no sense.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, man –
Dave Zirin: I know that was a lot. I apologize. It’s just, these are complicated questions. It’s not like if I call a rally then Brittney will come home. Or if I don’t call a rally then the lawyers will do their work. I mean, I know Real News dealt with this around Marshall Eddie Conway. It’s like what you do, there’s not like a kit that tells you what to do. You have to debate it. You have to discuss it. And then you have to fight for it.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, man. No apologies necessary. I thought that was very powerfully put, and one of the many reasons I wanted to get you on to educate our viewers about this. Because I think what you’re saying is very important. And ultimately, we’re talking about a human being’s life at stake right now, and her family and her friends. Like you said, I get the kind of urging for silence while the people behind closed doors do their work. But enough time has passed. And the State Department is dealing with a lot of other stuff right now, so there’s also the very real possibility that they’ll just say this isn’t a priority like the media has done. And so, what do we get for all that silence? We potentially get nothing. And I guess I wanted to fold that into a final question before I let you go. I guess, for people who are watching or listening to this, are there any directions that you think we could point them into, any efforts that are ongoing to raise that noise a little bit in defense of Brittney Griner?
Dave Zirin: Well, there’s an online petition, easily found through Google. People should seek it out and sign it. There actually are several online petitions. I would argue to sign them all. Keep Brittney Griner’s name alive however one can, whatever access one has to social media. And continue to push her name into the light, because I think that’s our strategy right now. One positive thing about social media and its relationship to the sports media – And anybody who watches sports media on the regular knows this – Oftentimes the cues for the stories that are told come straight from social media. It’s one thing if there’s a huge story that drops.
Remember, sports media is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week beast. And it either feeds upon the individual or the individual provides something for it to feed upon. And so, I think pushing forward the idea on social media to free Brittney Griner, to say her name, I think these are very important steps to make sure her name stays in the limelight. And maybe it can push sports media to acknowledge what’s happening right now. And, frankly, not to hide behind the State Department, which is what they’re doing.
Because I’ve pushed some people and been like, why aren’t you reporting on this? And it’s always behind the State Department, which is what they do. They hide behind the State Department and say, well, they’re doing their thing. It’s not our job to pressure the State Department. And it’s like, well, if I’m Brittney Griner, I’m saying it is your job to pressure the State Department because I don’t want to have to wait here until mid May and sleep in a bed that’s not big enough for my body. Because that’s something else we know about her conditions right now. And I don’t know what else we can possibly say other than shouting it even louder from the rooftops to bring Brittney home.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, where he also hosts The Nation‘s Edge of Sports Podcast, which everyone should listen to. Dave is the author of 10 books on the politics of sports, including most recently The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. And if you guys haven’t already, you should listen to Dave’s interview with our own Marc Steiner about that book, because it was really incredible. Dave, thank you so much for coming on. And thank you for doing this important work.
Dave Zirin: Oh it’s absolutely my pleasure, Maximillian. Anytime.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.