Britney Grenier is arguably the biggest WNBA star and one of the best basketball players of all time. Standing at 6 feet 9, her versatility on and off the court is hard to miss.
“She’s unlike anyone who’s ever played and has dominated every level she’s ever been,” said ESPN investigative reporter TJ Quinn on Vox’s daily news commentary podcast, Today’s explanation. “And then she also became a bit of a cultural icon. For her sexuality, for her struggle with mental health issues. She really became more than just an athlete for the people who followed her.”
But like many WNBA players, a lack of fair pay has prompted her to play in Russia – where she is now being held after Moscow airport security finds cannabis oil in her bags. Now, the US State Department is turning up the heat to free Griner. This episode of Today’s explanation He explores what it might take to bring her home. Below is a partial transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Britney Greiner is one of the greatest players in the history of her game. She was the best high school player in the country. She signed with Baylor, and won a national title there, All-American, the first draft of the WNBA when she became a professional and permanent All-Star. What stands out is its size. She plays a dominant physical type of game, both defensively and offensively, which stands out. But it also drowns out games, which is not uncommon in the WNBA.
So it’s fair to say that she is one of the best players in the WNBA.
One of the best players in the history of basketball.
What is one of the best players in the history of basketball in Russia doing?
Women who play in the WNBA, the highest level of basketball to be played in that sport, can only earn a few hundred thousand dollars at most. There is a maximum salary limit for what they can achieve. There are limited marketing opportunities for women who play professional basketball. But in Russia, as in a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East, she can make more than a million dollars playing for one of the teams that she has few. So there’s this long history of WNBA players making something that would be a good salary for most people, but really low for someone with his skills, going to Russia, and Turkey, where they get paid a lot higher. And so she used to spend her spare time earning three or four – sometimes five – times the salary she could have earned in the United States by playing in Russia.
So let’s talk about how Britney Greiner ended up being arrested in Russia. Where does that story begin?
It begins on February 17 when I flew there, as I did several times, and landed at the airport outside Moscow.
In the video released by customs officials, she is seen going through baggage checks as usual. Then it is taken off the line. What happens next is disputed.
She actually didn’t say one way or the other, nor are her actors. And since that time, she was held captive, but there was no interest in her in this country. Russia has not announced this. They have kept it very low. Its representatives were almost immediately in contact with the US State Department. And the advice given to them by the State Department was, “Look, you should stay out of sight now. There are two directions it can go. Russia has, nominally at least, a criminal justice system. It is clearly corrupt and subject to the rule of one man, Vladimir Putin and his government, But there is one and it actually works. And until they have an idea of how to treat it, you’d better stay out of sight.” Because the other path is, if it becomes so valuable, if there’s a lot of interest in it, well, it’s a potential asset for Putin and his government for something they want to trade for. This was not the way I wanted to go.
They followed the advice of the State Department and remained very low until about three weeks later, in early March, Russian customs officials announced it. And when we heard in this country that she was being held, there was a media response: “Wait a second. How can one of the best athletes in the world have been in detention for more than two weeks and no one knew about it?” And it was intentional.
They really wanted to stay out of sight. She has lawyers out there trying to see, “Can we solve this through the criminal justice system?” And then when you had a number of Congressmen and high profile athletes who raised the question of “If this were a male athlete, if this was LeBron James or someone else, people would get out of their minds!” People who support Britney Greiner bemoan the inequality in women’s sports in this country. But in this case, here’s where it worked for them, because they felt, “Okay, let’s be as quiet as we can, and see if we can work this out.” Because if you basically become a pawn of Putin, you’re in a whole new world.
As I recall, since this was happening close to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I sensed that Russia was probably trying to gain a little influence over the United States, probably, by holding this sports star because of the cannabis oil on it.
It is entirely possible. People following Russia immediately thought of the fact that there is a well-established history of Russian law enforcement planting drugs on people in order to capture them. This is what they do. And although the war had not begun, the invasion had not yet begun on February 17, but they knew it was coming. So for those inclined to think this was a setting, the pieces were there. There is a history of Russia doing this.
The fact that she’s high profile, easily identifiable, and the fact that she’s also a 6-foot-9 black lesbian, which is a warning to all Putin-era Russian mothers—”Look what happens to your kids if you break free like the West”—they knew the motive was there. And that they could potentially be a chip to trade something if they wanted to.
But there are also a number of people who say, “Well, wait a minute, they don’t make much of this. They caught her. It’s entirely possible that she did. And just because they’re politicizing her or they might be willing to trade for her doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t. She is committing the crime she is accused of. Who do you know? But you know, what becomes clear to the US government at some point is that Russia is open for business and that they don’t need to wait a year to be prosecuted – you can hold someone pre-trial for a year. There – it’s time to start moving.
Even mom is the word when everyone finds out. But here we are, almost 80 days later. Do we know what Britney’s experience was? Were you able to speak publicly about this?
Not done at all. Her only contact was her representatives to her lawyer. Officials at the US Consulate were able to visit her again in March and reported that she was fine. What I hear from people around her is that she’s pretty good, bearing in mind. I mean, she’s in prison in a foreign country. She does not speak the language. Presumably there are people around her who speak English. She has material to read. There have been reports that it has been difficult to find a bed that fits her, which makes sense – she’s 6ft 9ft – and she’s fine, considering. But there is no way to verify this independently.
Just imagine showing up at the start of the season and the biggest player in the game not being there. You can’t suddenly pretend that Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or someone just isn’t there. It was tough for players who wanted to talk more, but now they know they have some freedom to start doing it.
I’ve seen some gradual increase in how much they talk about it. In the WNBA draft a few weeks ago, the first statement that came out of the commissioner’s mouth was about Britney Grenier. And just last week, there was discussion about putting a label on the gaming floor. These are all intentional. It’s strategic to slowly start increasing the amount of attention her cause gets.
And the US government is talking about it now, too.
This was the big change. The people around her were kind of waiting for permission or a sign that it was now time to start speaking out.
When you talk about protests, you have to think about: Who are you actually protesting against, or are you trying to apply public pressure against Vladimir Putin? Because that probably won’t work. This is the person who launched an invasion, united much of the world against him, and suffered the greatest punishments in geopolitical history, and that did not change him. So it seems unlikely that the hashtag will affect what he does.
The real pressure they want to create is with the US government – to try to force the White House and the State Department to make it a priority, to make a deal and go home. Here you see some tension. Britney Greiner and ex-USMC captured Trevor Reed – who was [detained in Russia] For over two years and have just come home – have one goal, to bring their loved ones home.
The US government has multiple goals. It’s trying to win back those Americans, two, not creating a precedent that they fear will put more Americans at risk by creating an incentive. And third, it serves larger geopolitical interests. So what [the families] You want to do is put as much pressure as possible on the US government. And the feeling that if they could put this on top of Joe Biden’s mind… it would be very helpful if the President of the United States, or Ron Klein, his chief of staff, would call the State Department and say, “What’s going on here?” This may be the kind of pressure that’s getting things moving.
Listen to the full episode of Today’s explanation Wherever you get podcasts.