A Different Ball Game



WNBA star Brittney Griner is moved to a penal colony in the middle of Russia on Nov. 17.

Chinel Okoye and Tra'von Govan

   Brittney Yvette Griner is an American professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury team of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). She went from having what most consider an outstanding lifestyle to being sentenced to nine years in the Russian prison system for a drug charge.  

   In February, Griner was traveling overseas to Russia to play professional basketball in the Russian premier league. It’s common for many U.S. athletes to play for overseas teams to further their career in the sport of their choice. Griner was prescribed medical cannabis in Arizona, which is prohibited in Russia. The country is known for enforcing strict drug possession laws and has had a long enforced prohibition of all drugs with no exceptions. On Feb. 17, Griner was detained at the Sheremetyevo – A.S. Pushkin international airport in Russia after the Federal Security Service found vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil. Griner was then imprisoned in Russia and has been there ever since. 

Many U.S. officials have expressed their concern for Griner, claiming that her imprisonment is unlawful.

   Maria Alyokhina is part of a feminist group and was arrested during a protest against Putin and ended up serving two years in prison. Not any normal prison, she mentions. She describes penal colony prison as one with no cells that to her looked like a village, or even a Gulag labor camp. The penal colony is similar to a labor camp because the prisoners are expected to sew uniforms for police and the Russian Army almost without salary, Alyokhina said in an interview.

   Yelena is another woman who experienced a similar encounter. She mentioned that girls with a more athletic build would work heavier jobs like loading flour or unloading coal. Going from the life of an American star to working with almost no salary in a prison something that Griner probably never imagined. On top of that, Griner is a foreigner with little to no knowledge of the Russian language, making it harder to navigate the system and handle the isolation.

People have used social media to express their concern for Griner, but there is a clear divide on this controversial topic. Some feel that Griner should have been educated on the laws of Russia, while others feel that this a drug charge for only less than a gram of hash oil is dehumanizing and unlawful.

   Although Griner’s appeal was rejected in court, she may have more faith than before now that President Biden has become involved. To the knowledge of U.S. Embassy officials, Griner is doing as well as she can given her current circumstances.