Brittney Griner is back in the United States and diving again after almost 10 months in detention in Russia
Fresh from her thrilled return to the United States after months spent in detention in Russia, Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is back on a basketball court.
But his reintegration into American life is far from over, as is the WNBA players’ fight for fairness as American professional athletes. The problem was highlighted by the 10-month detention of Griner, who had gone to Russia to play basketball during the WNBA offseason.
Wearing a Title IX t-shirt, Griner’s first move on a Texas basketball court on Sunday was a dunk, his agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas told ESPN.
The 32-year-old had arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio two days earlier for a routine evaluation after her release on Thursday from what US officials believe was wrongful detention. She was freed in the midst of Russia’s war in Ukraine in a prisoner exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
It’s unclear how long Griner will stay at the medical center — or if the Phoenix Mercury center will return to the WNBA, Colas told ESPN. The 2023 WNBA regular season begins May 19. CNN has reached out to Colas for comment.
“If she wants to play, it will be up to her to share,” Colas told ESPN’s TJ Quinn. “She has the holidays to rest and decide what to do next without any pressure. She is doing really well. She seems to have endured this quite unbelievably.
But the fact that Griner typically plays basketball in Russia during her WNBA offseasons highlights the inequalities faced by professional female athletes in the United States, other WNBA players have said.
For many years, WNBA players have spent their off seasons playing in international leagues, where they can make more money.
“We’ve been talking about the wage disparity for a long time and players have been going overseas for a long time,” Elizabeth Williams, a Washington Mystics player and secretary of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, told CNN on Monday.
“I think that’s when people realize … the dangers and perils of people going overseas and the impact of these pay equity issues.”
Griner was arrested for drug trafficking at a Russian airport in February and sentenced to nine years in prison. As concerns grew that Griner was being used as a political pawn, efforts to negotiate his release took months.
Now back on American soil, it’s unclear how long Griner will stay in Texas for a medical evaluation.
“I understand it will be a few more days before it comes out,” former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told CNN on Sunday.
Richardson and his center work privately on behalf of families of hostages and detainees. He has previously traveled to Russia to discuss the release of Griner, as well as Paul Whelan, a wrongfully detained former US Marine who is still in custody.
Richardson said it was important to give former inmates like Griner enough time to settle down.
“We have to give them some space, some time to readjust because they had a horrible experience in these Russian prisons,” said Richardson, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. .
While being held in a Russian penal colony, Griner was unable to perform the work done by many female prisoners due to her size, Griner’s Russian lawyer Maria Blagovolina told ESPN and confirmed to CNN.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked sewing uniforms, but the 6-foot-9 Griner was too tall to sit at a worktable and her hands were too big to handle sewing. Instead, she wore cloth all day, her lawyer said.
On the day of her release, Griner felt she would return home, said the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, who led the prisoner exchange mission to the United Arab Emirates.
But it didn’t seem real until he boarded the plane and said, “On behalf of United States President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home,” Carstens recalled to CN.
He described Griner as an intelligent, compassionate, humble, and patriotic person who immediately wanted to thank all the crew members who helped her.
“When she finally got on the American plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot in the last 10 months. Here is your seat. Do not hesitate to decompress. We will give you your space,” recalls Carstens.
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I have been in prison for 10 months and I listen to Russian, I want to speak. But first, who are these guys? And she walked right past me and went up to all the members of this crew, looked them in the eye, shook their hands and asked about them and got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing,” Carstens said.
Griner spent 12 hours on an 18-hour flight talking with Carstens “about everything under the sun,” he said.
Griner’s life has been forever changed and adjusting to everyday life could be difficult.
“She is reintegrating into a world that has changed for her now. From a pure security perspective, she won’t be able to move around the world like she did,” Griner’s agent told ESPN.
“It’s not a fate she asked for, but I think she will try to use her fame for good.”
Jorge Toledo – one of the “Citgo 6” – was released in October in a prisoner exchange after being detained while on a business trip to Venezuela in 2017 with other oil executives and gas from the Citgo Corporation.
After returning home, Toledo told CNN he had trouble sleeping and experienced anxiety during normally mundane tasks such as driving.
But Toledo said he was part of a program in San Antonio that involved six days with a group of psychologists. He said the program was “extremely important” to his reintegration and hopes Griner can take advantage of similar resources.
While many celebrate Griner’s return, the fate of another American detained in Russia remains uncertain.
Whelan – an American, Irish, British and Canadian citizen – is imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after being arrested in December 2018 for espionage, which he denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Now that Griner is back in the United States, Richardson said he was optimistic about Whelan’s release – noting that Russia had already offered an exchange for Whelan.
The United States attempted to persuade Russia to trade both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but Russian officials stood idly by on the matter. Russia said the Americans’ cases were handled differently depending on the charges each faced.
“It was not a choice of the American to take home,” Biden said last week. “Unfortunately, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And even though we haven’t been able to secure Paul’s release yet, we’re not giving up. We will never give up.
Whelan said he was happy that Griner had been released, but told CNN, “I am very disappointed that nothing more has been done to secure my release, especially as the fourth anniversary of my arrest approach.”