Congressman Kweisi Mfume

By Rep. Kweisi Mfume

She has worked in Russia for 7 years. She is one of the best players in a sport loved by both Americans and Russians alike. She plays on behalf of our country for Team USA Basketball. She is endorsed by a global, iconic sports brand in Nike. Now she is a political pawn for Vladimir Putin in his chess match against Ukraine and the West. The “She” of whom I write is Brittney Griner.

Imagine if a player of her caliber from the NBA, like Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, were behind bars for some alleged hashish oil residue. Would the story of a sports superstar locked up inside a country like Russia, be this protracted if the athlete were a man? Not likely.

Female basketball players make much less money than their male counterparts in the US. This compels WNBA superstars like Brittney Griner to go abroad in the off-season to earn extra income, especially during the prime of their careers.

The 31-year-old Griner faces adjudication in the kangaroo courts that is the Russian judicial system. Russia’s courts have operated in this manner well before the full-blown war that currently exists. One can only imagine the negligence for the rights of the accused the country’s judicial branch can get away with during this time of chaos. Ms. Griner has traveled to and from Russia multiple times over the last 7 years without being stopped or detained. This begs the question, why now? And, why her?

The breakdown of any resemblance of fair legal proceedings in Ms. Griner’s case bothers me. After over three weeks silenced within a Russian jail, the State Department was finally granted consular access to Ms. Griner in late-March. Still, her detention has been extended by Russian authorities until mid-May, when she will appear at a hearing. Why is she being held this way? Again, why now and why her?

A significant portion of my very real concern surrounding Ms. Griner’s detention, as has been suggested by the WNBA Player’s Union, stems from the fact that she is a woman and is the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike. I have great concern for Ms. Griner receiving a free and fair hearing given that LGBTQ people face open discrimination, disdain, and sickening treatment from Russian authorities.

Women’s basketball icon Lisa Leslie, enshrined in both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, said herself on the “I Am Athlete” podcast she was urged to refrain from making a “big fuss” about Griner’s detention.

In a clip from the podcast, Leslie said: “What we were told…was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn…in this situation in the war.”

Vladimir Putin believes Ms. Griner’s supporters, friends, and family may cause a stir to distract the Biden administration during the invasion of Ukraine, or perhaps formulate a prisoner exchange for a Russian national who might have value to Putin and his criminal cronies. Again, we must ask, why her and why now?

Considering Russia’s harsh detention of Americans Paul Whelan, sentenced to 16 years, and Trevor Reed, serving 9 years, we must be wary of the imposing judicial forces lined up against Brittney. Ms. Griner could face up to 10 years in prison herself for the alleged illegal drug residue charge.

The custody of Brittney Griner is yet another casualty of an oppressive Russian government that feels empowered to toy with an innocent life because of her skin color, sexual orientation, and the potential political gain of her captivity. Ms. Griner’s condition cannot fall out of sight from widespread media coverage, especially as she becomes more entrenched deep inside the Russian legal system. Her story can run parallel to the atrocities that are occurring in Ukraine, giving the world more cause to rein in the terror of Putin’s Russia.

Brittney Griner is of notable stature; not a political basketball to be bounced around. And while Putin may be playing games with this young woman’s life, there should be consequences for Russia. She should be liberated now. The ball is in your court Mr. Putin. Free Brittney!

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