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Griner case is about far more than drugs

Earl O. Hutchinson

NBA superstar LeBron James took much heat for his off-the-cuff quip about detained WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. James wondered aloud if America had her back for not immediately bringing her home. When the predictable firestorm of criticism hit, James quickly backpedaled and praised “our beautiful country.”

James, though, was not far off with his initial quip — but not because of America’s supposed inaction on Griner. President Biden, to his credit, has repeatedly publicly spoken out about Griner. He has protested her detention, pledged to do whatever he can to secure her release, and called her detention “wrongful.” There is much talk about a prisoner swap to get her back home.

The James furor obscures the real reasons that Griner landed in a Russian slammer in the first place. Griner is not just a scrub, end-of-the-bench professional basketball player. She’s a bona fide NBA superstar. She’s also a woman, and the WNBA could hardly be mistaken for the NBA. The gaping pay disparity, the lucrative endorsement deals, the mediocre attendance for many WNBA games, and the almost after-thought media coverage of the WNBA compared to the NBA is staggering. It’s basically a woman’s sport in a game world dominated by men.

That forced Griner and many other talented female professional basketball players to pack their bags and shuffle off to Russia, and other foreign locales to make some semblance of the money that she and the other women could never hope to make playing pro ball in America.

Griner’s been knocked by some for not knowing the rules of travel, and for being careless about bringing in drugs. That’s to say, she’s to blame for her plight and her alleged irresponsible action.

That begs the larger question. That is, whether she got even more marked attention because of who she is. And whether because of her name and fame, she was ripe to be made a political pawn. Her arrest came at a moment when Russia has taken so much heat in the U.S. for its hideous, brutal attempt to destroy Ukraine. Griner was tailor-made to divert attention from Russia’s war of annihilation to a celebrity basketball player who broke the law.

Griner is not just an African American female basketball player, either. She’s an African American lesbian basketball player. Race, gender, politics, war and same-sex issues swirl around her. Russia has long been one of the most hostile nations on the planet toward same-sex and LGBT relations — harassing, attacking, jailing and legislating against LGBT relations.

At the same time, many places in the U.S. would subtly applaud Russia’s anti-LGBT bias. Griner has equal opprobrium in Russia and in those places in the U.S. It is no accident that her arrest and incarceration in a Russian jail in February did not immediately draw international outcry and stir quick action and condemnation by the U.S. government.

The issues surrounding not just her case, but also her, were too murky and loaded with controversy to quickly move government and public opinion to brand her arrest an injustice and demand action.

Griner perhaps read the tea leaves in her case and pleaded guilty to the charge. However, once her case began to draw the kind of international attention it should have drawn from the start, she has had second thoughts. She protests that she did not attempt to peddle drugs and that her drugs were solely for her personal use, legally obtained and medically prescribed.

There will be more court appearances, and she’ll have another chance to make the case that she, as Biden and the U.S. government way, was “wrongfully detained.”

LeBron may have been fumbling and indiscreet in how he chose his words initially to bash the U.S. government in the Griner case. However, because his words do carry weight, it has at least forced many more people to take a fresh look at her plight.

There are many takeaways from her case that go far beyond LeBron, the government’s action, and the public response to her. When the issues of race, gender, same-sex and celebrity crash together, things get complicated. But worse, the biases that each of these issues engenders always lurk, and inevitably explode to the surface. Whether Griner is a political pawn or victim of her own carelessness is less important now than simply seeing justice done. In her case, bring her home.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.