That’s the only word to describe Brittney Griner’s situation.
On Wednesday, we learned that the American basketball player and Houston native was transferred last week to a penal colony somewhere in Russia. Her lawyers don’t know exactly where she is. Russian authorities did not notify U.S. diplomats or respond to their queries. The process of relocation can take weeks.
Griner has been held in Russia since she returned there last winter to play for her longtime professional team; at the airport, vape canisters containing a small amount — reportedly less than a gram — of cannabis oil were found in her luggage. She has been detained for eight months, sentenced to more than nine years, and failed to win an appeal. Her punishment far exceeds the normal penalties for cannabis in Russia, which are usually a 15-day jail term plus a fine for small amounts. Griner has apologized, said she made a mistake and explained that she has used the vapes to manage her pain, as do many athletes.
For the moment, Griner is marooned somewhere in vast Russia, likely headed toward a cramped, aging facility where conditions are sure to be particularly harsh. Former inmates have likened Russian penal colonies to modern-day concentration camps.
The Phoenix Mercury center’s predicament is so alarming that it was addressed in President Biden’s post-election news conference Wednesday.
Biden expressed hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be more willing to negotiate now that the U.S. midterm elections are over. The Biden administration has been attempting to earn the release of Griner, potentially in a prisoner swap with Moscow.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Biden said.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the events in recent days have put the Russian authoritarian leader in a foul mood. News of Griner’s transfer came on the same day we learned that Russia was withdrawing from Kherson in southern Ukraine, another humiliating loss in an ongoing war that Russia is clearly not winning, and which has undermined Putin’s standing in his country.
The news came as American election results were being counted and despite the recent crowing of one of Putin’s buddies that Russia had interfered and would continue to interfere in American elections, the results could not have been what Putin, with his aims to undermine faith in American democracy, desired.
Griner is a gay, heavily tattooed Black woman who has won two gold medals for the United States and, at 6-foot-9, would tower over Putin. She plays in the WNBA, the sporting league that did more to flip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate than any other entity. In other words, Griner is symbolic of much that Putin disdains.
For months, basketball players have been vocal, trying to make sure that Griner’s predicament stays in the spotlight. The Warriors’ Stephen Curry wore her jersey in a segment when hosting the ESPYs in July, appearing onstage with WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
“We urge the entire global sports community to stay energized on her behalf,” Curry said. “She’s one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and all over the world.
“We cannot stop fighting for her, we will not stop believing for her and we will not stop hoping for the day when we can welcome her home safely.”
One glaring exception has been Griner’s collegiate coach, Kim Mulkey, who won a national championship and had an undefeated season at Baylor thanks to Griner. When asked for her thoughts on Griner in a preseason news conference this fall, Mulkey offered nothing. When a reporter ventured, “I don’t think we’ve heard your thoughts on Brittney,” Mulkey, now the head coach at LSU, snapped, “And you won’t.”
It was a moment shockingly lacking in empathy and compassion from a woman who remains entrusted with the care and development of young women. The two had a falling out when Griner revealed, after she had turned pro, that Mulkey insisted she keep her sexuality a secret while playing for Baylor.
But aside from Mulkey’s bitterness, the outpouring of support continues. People such as Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley post on their social-media accounts on an almost daily basis about Griner’s plight.
Before the season opener Monday at Maples Pavilion, the Stanford Cardinal held a moment of silence in support of Griner. Head coach Tara VanDerveer has ordered uniform patches in support of Griner.
“I just wanted to remind everyone that we’re thinking of her, and that we love her, and that it’s a horrible situation,” VanDerveer said.
It is a horrible situation. One that, this week, seems to have gotten worse.
Ann Killion is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @annkillion
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