After five months of being held in Russia on drug charges, Brittney Griner has been sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison camp. In February, the WNBA center, Olympic gold medalist and seven-time All-Star was at an airport near Moscow when a cartridge containing hashish oil, a cannabis concentrate, was found in her luggage. Upon the news of the case surfacing weeks later, a political and social frenzy ensued as the nation tried to uncover how one of the league’s brightest stars was caught in the center of nightmarish legal proceedings.
Griner, 31, was born in Houston, Texas, the youngest of Sandra and Ray Griner’s four children. Kids tormented her in grade school for her physical features: her self-described flat, thin body— the very build that would help make her famous. She began to take basketball seriously in high school and chose to attend Baylor University in 2009, helping them cement a 40-0 record during the 2012 season.
At the start of her final year of college, Griner shocked fans when she avoided the WNBA draft. Instead, she chose to finish her remaining year at Baylor. It was then that conversations ignited about pay inequity and playing overseas.
“Even though there is decent money to be made for Griner in combining WNBA and overseas salaries, it’s not guaranteed multimillions [sic], as is the case with her NBA counterparts,” wrote ESPN’s Mechelle Vopel in 2012. Not much has changed. A decade later, the same sentiment was echoed after Griner’s 2022 arrest. Her 2022 salary was $227,900; meanwhile, Paolo Banchero, the 2022 no. 1 draft pick in the NBA, has an average salary of $12,539,692.
The six-foot-nine player was the first draft pick in 2013 by thethe Phoenix Mercury, the team she still calls home.
“We are very excited to welcome Brittney to our team and to Arizona,” Phoenix Mercury Managing Partner Robert Sarver said at the start of her professional career. “She embodies a level of talent and energy that will not only positively impact our game on the court, but elevate women’s basketball around the world.”
Two days after she was drafted, Griner publicly came out as gay. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” she said to Sports Illustrated.
Griner averaged 12.6 points per game for her first season, a mean that jumped up to 21.9 by 2017. LeBron James was supportive of her early on, comparing her skill to Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. James has also been critical of the U.S.’s response to Griner’s imprisonment. In a July episode of his YouTube series “The Shop,” he said, “Now, how can she feel like America has her back? I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’”
In August 2014, Griner announced her engagement to then-fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson after a short, whirlwind romance. Eight months after their announcement, they were arrested following a domestic dispute and the WNBA suspended them for seven games. Still, the two went through with the wedding, trading vows on May 8, 2015.
The former couple’s twin girls were born four months premature in October 2016.
After Griner’s arrest, Johnson shared an Instagram post detailing that she was implicitly in support of her ex-wife. She also took critics head on and said Griner was more “misunderstood than understood on any given day by anyone.”
Article continues after video.
In Russia, Griner was in a different world. As a player, she got to enjoy a much heftier salary around $1M per season. She also got a chance to reconnect with herself.
“I don’t have to talk to anybody over here,” Griner said to ESPN in 2016. “I don’t have to see anybody. I don’t have to answer my phone. And everybody is asleep half the time when I’m up. I can be disconnected when I’m over here.” She began playing for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2016.
So the cycle began. Griner spent late summers/early falls in Phoenix and icy winters in Russia. Her game was strong, too. In 2019, general managers of the WNBA named her one of the best centers in the league. The same year, she married Cherelle Watson after a year-long engagement.
“I will never forget the day I met you at Baylor in the sub area!” Griner wrote on Instagram in June 2020. “You tapped me on my shoulder and told me I took your milkshake (still up for debate lol) and I was immediately blown away at your beauty! You had no idea but I knew you were the one for me baby. You stuck by my side at the lowest and at the highest!”
Her wife’s imprisonment gutted Cherelle.
“The first week, I laid on this couch and cried my eyeballs out,” she said to “Good Morning America“ regarding Griner’s detention. Cherelle has since spoken with President Biden and Vice President Harris about their work to get Griner, and other American detainees, home.
Cherelle, who graduated with a law degree in May, has not shared a public statement since Griner was sentenced.
Social media erupted with missives from Griner’s teammates, politicians and everyday people who were saddened by her lengthy sentence. “Seeing BG behind these bars is breaking my heart,” tweeted Diamond DeShields, a guard on the Mercury Phoenix team. “Praying hard for her today.”
In a contested tweet, Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke about the sentencing.
“With today’s sentencing, Russia continues its wrongful detention of Brittney Griner. She should be released immediately. President Biden and I, and our entire Administration, are working every day to reunite Brittney, as well as Paul Whelan, with loved ones who miss each of them dearly.”
Towards the end of July, Russia and the U.S. begin negotiating about a prisoner swap. Griner and Paul Whelan, a Canadian security director, would be freed in exchange for the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer.
On August 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced the U.S. and Russia are ready to fully engage in the conversation through pre-approved channels. Since Griner’s arrest took place as tensions escalated between the two countries as a result of the war between Russia and the Ukraine, the idea of her being a political pawn has been a looming concern.
Griner being a Black, gay woman held in Russia, a country with anti-gay propaganda law (that was extended to include adults in mid-July), is also not lost on her supporters. In 2017, reports began to pour in about members of the gay community in the Russian republic Chechyna being tortured, detained and killed. So it’s been hard for many to believe that Griner’s sexuality does not tie in to her treatment. It’s also potentially solidified her as valuable to Russians as they attempt to have Bout freed.
“Her race and sexuality are being magnified in these discourses about her guilt or her innocence in the United States,” Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, an expert on Blackness in Russia, said to Politco. “There’s no reason to think that Russia isn’t also watching that.”