For Brittney Griner, sports have been both a blessing and a curse.


By mid-summer, three and a half years had passed since Russian intelligence agents, working for the country’s newest version of its notorious KGB, entered Paul Whelan’s American hotel room in Moscow, pinned him to the floor, and accused him of treason, for which the Russian judicial system eventually sentenced him to 16 years in the Mordovian gulag. However, little has been told about his story. And when he was, I found after searching a database of 8,000-plus news sources including magazines, websites and blogs, that his family’s pleas for help were heard with little emotion. , rarely generate more than 100 reports per month. That’s despite desperate public protests like the one outside the White House in May.

But in July, Whelan’s situation suddenly gained public traction. Factiva, that news database, received nearly 3,000 hits on its name that month alone. And then more than 3,000 in August. And up to 2,500 since then.

Why the uptick? Cultural reference of sport.

For July, basketball star Brittney Griner made her first court appearance since being detained at Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow in February. Authorities there said a search of her luggage found two vape cartridges with traces of hemp oil, or marijuana. Marijuana is illegal in Russia, both recreationally and medicinally.

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Whether Griner accidentally, as she claimed, or intentionally brought what Russia considers contraband into her country is now a point of contention. So, too, if she has been framed in a dubious legal system run by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, which attacked US-affiliated Ukraine a week after Griner arrived. It doesn’t matter what the loose laws are for marijuana in Griner’s native United States, where cannabis activists protested Thursday outside the Russian embassy.

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In fact, she was jailed on Russian drug-smuggling charges pending a summer trial, in which she was convicted and sentenced to more than nine years in a penal colony apparently as terrifying as the one where Whelan is in prison.

And since then, Whelan, often referred to as a former Marine, has been linked to Griner, who is now the most famous American political prisoner abroad because of her iconic status in baseball. , with gold medals from two Olympics – Rio and Tokyo – and the EuroLeague Championship she won with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League. Ironically, she was arrested when she returned to play in the RPL for what her wife described as one of the last Russian seasons.

“I intend to raise an issue that is a priority for us,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the end of July about an upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart, “the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who were keep them wrong. and he must be allowed to come home.”

That Whelan’s imprisonment is now being recalled because of Griner’s situation, and that Griner is the most famous of 60 Americans held or imprisoned in questionable circumstances overseas, is an unmistakable reminder of sports magnetism. As the sociologists of sport M. Patrick Cottrell and Travis Nelson pointed out in a 2010 “European Journal of International Relations” article on the role of sport as a platform for political opportunity unlike any other in the world theater, sport is “… accessible and high-level. receive regular and worldwide media coverage” and “can increase their availability of influential friends and supporters… to attract more attention to their cause and forge new alliances.”

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The question is whether this use of sports fame will be a gift to Griner – and then Whelan, and others – as much as it has been a curse for the basketball star until now.

I’m not going to pretend – like many in sports, media, fans and executives alike – to know anything about how the House is, or should be White trying to lock up citizens like Griner and Whelan abroad. (A television show titled with that phrase has turned these problems into entertainment.) I’m not going to speculate whether an athletic star of Griner’s stature from an already famous men’s sport would be home after for him to suffer in the same way.

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After all, Griner, like Whelan, is now a political prisoner. We can say that with certainty with reports that the two could only be freed in exchange for infamous criminals linked to the Putin regime and held in US facilities. For those who believe that if Griner were an NBA Finals MVP or a Super Bowl winning quarterback she would be back on US soil now, such fame could be released and Whelan more difficult. Such publicity could demand hoodlums even more than the US negotiators are offering her and Whelan’s disclosure, which is reported to include Viktor Bout, an international Russian arms dealer.

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Bout is probably far more personally responsible than anyone on the planet over the last quarter century for the destruction of sub-Saharan Africa, including fueling documented genocide and massacres in countries such as Rwanda and Sierra Leone. In that sense, from a national security perspective, the greater credence given to a superstar in men’s sports could make a trade deal with Russia even more determined. Griner and Whelan’s alleged crimes are not identical to Bout’s crimes.

But Griner is not forgotten. He was not forgotten, not like Emad Shargi and Kai Li and Jeffery Woodke and Eyvin Hernandez et. al. Her WNBA sisters said her name on her birthday, Oct. 18. Her NBA brothers joined in that chorus, highlighted by NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry giving her a shout-out on her 32nd birthday -birth when he and his Golden State teammates received their championship rings.

“We hope she comes home soon,” Curry told the crowd at that nationally televised game, “and that everyone is doing their part to bring her home.” “

That hope should include both the most famous American political chit abroad, and everyone else, like Whelan, who was once forgotten.


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