Home Explainer: What you need to know to be able to make sense of the Brittney Griner story

Explainer: What you need to know to be able to make sense of the Brittney Griner story

Chris Graham
Brittney Griner
(© Keeton Gale – Shutterstock)

Brittney Griner is back on US soil after spending a harrowing 10 months in detention in Russia as a political prisoner.

The Biden administration, as you’ve no doubt heard, read or seen on social media, negotiated her release in an exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who is known by the nickname “Merchant of Death.”

It was, from outward appearances, far from a fair trade – the “Merchant of Death” who plotted to kill Americans for a basketball player serving a nine-year prison sentence because she had vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis in her luggage.

Predictably, this story has become a partisan political football in the US – because another high-profile American that we have determined to be unlawfully detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, a retired US Marine, is still in his Russian prison cell, and conservative commentators are making it an issue that the Biden administration was somehow able to free Brittney Griner and not get any movement on Paul Whelan.

The Russians, of course, had this in their calculus. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, has been playing Americans against each other to his benefit for much of the past decade, and we fall for his shenanigans every time.

And in this case, it’s a self-inflicted wound – Griner was only in Russia because American women’s basketball stars have to play overseas, the result of startingly low pay in the WNBA.

Let’s examine each of these subplots in detail.

Brittney is back home

Griner, 32, was seen getting off a plane on Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

The next steps for her include receiving specialized medical services and counseling to help her process her 10-month ordeal.

Griner had been arrested on Feb. 17 on the trumped-up charges over vape cartridges, then was paraded for months on Russian state TV in a show trial that ended with her being sentenced in August to a nine-year prison term.

This was all playing out as Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a war effort that was a continuation of his territorial aims in the region dating back to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin clearly expected a response from the West similar to what he saw out of Crimea, which was basically nothing, but the US and European powers drew a line in the sand with the Ukraine invasion, and that, coupled with the fight put up by the Ukrainians in defending their homeland, has been developing into an existential political crisis for the Kremlin.

This is the backdrop against which the effort to get Griner and Whelan back home has had to play out this year.

Griner and Whelan are human bargaining chips to Putin, and if you view this story that way, nothing that you’ve seen over the past 10 months, and the past couple of days, in terms of the debate on our side of the pond, should surprise you.

The show trial of Griner was done for our purposes.

The order to send Griner to a penal colony last month was done for our purposes.

The Russians are proud that their prisons are characterized as “among the worst in Europe” according to a 2017 Amnesty International report.

Griner was sent to a prison that we were made known was surrounded by walls and barbed wire, with 21 square feet of living space per person.

This was done to shock us, anger us, to pressure us to want to do anything to get her back home.

‘The Merchant of Death’

Putin doesn’t care about Viktor Bout, and honestly, neither does the US government.

Bout, 55, was an arms smuggler in the 1990s and early 2000s, taking advantage of the collapse of the former Soviet Union to put money in his own bank account by moving arms from the former Soviet bloc to Africa and the Middle East.

The reason we cared at all was our concern that Bout’s efforts to line his pockets resulted in weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.

The US government set up a sting operation to nab Bout, and he was arrested in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the US in 2010, and subsequently convicted and given a 25-year sentence.

The notion that he was plotting to kill Americans is more drama than reality. The sting operation that led to his arrest, conviction and prison sentence involved a paid DEA informant who claimed to represent a rebel group in Columbia that was then the target of a US military operation.

To Bout, the rebels were paying customers.

Russian authorities tried to work on Bout’s behalf to prevent his extradition to the US, but as he was set to face trial, an aide to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia had “nothing to hide” in Bout’s criminal case, and said Bout “should answer all the questions the American justice system has.”

By 2013, Russia had decided to cast Bout as being a political prisoner, but it’s clear that the Kremlin was viewing Bout as a bargaining chip for political purposes more than anything else.

So, what did this accomplish?

Putin doesn’t care about Viktor Bout. So, what did he seek to accomplish by demanding his trade for Brittney Griner?

The former KGB colonel knows America better than we know ourselves, obviously.

Look at how our media has framed this story.

Even the straight-up mainstream media has it as “’The Merchant of Death’ for a women’s basketball player.”

And the conservative media, playing to the script, has been ugly, highlighting how the trade of Bout for Griner was done at the exclusion of Whelan, a retired Marine.

Uglier, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who seems to revel in parroting the Kremin’s talking points these days, is framing it as the Biden administration favoring Griner because she’s a black lesbian.

This was the intent all along.

Think about it: have you wondered how it is that we get to hear from Paul Whelan directly about what he thinks of the prisoner exchange?

Brittney Griner didn’t get approved to talk to CNN to plead her case, but there was Whelan on a phone from his prison cell last night, making it known that he has bags packed and is just waiting on a plane to pick him up.

Russian officials are allowing him to talk to CNN because it serves their cause.

This is masterclass propaganda manipulation.

Consider that Biden administration officials have insisted that the choice presented to them by the Russians wasn’t Griner or Whelan for Bout, but Griner for Bout, or no trade.

Because of course that’s what the Russians offered.

They knew that what they were sowing, and here we are, reaping the whirlwind.

The self-inflicted wound

Why was Brittney Griner in Russia in the first place? Simple. She can’t get market value here playing basketball in the US.

Griner was reportedly being paid $1 million to play this season for the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg, double what top WNBA players make here in salary and endorsement deals.

Women’s basketball is a matter of pride and politics for the Russian ruling class, which uses women’s basketball as another cudgel against the West, in this case to showcase that its money can do what we’re not willing to do.

Women’s basketball has yet to gain a foothold anywhere near the level of the NBA in the American consciousness, but it can’t help that the league is reduced to playing its games in the summer, a time of year when potential viewers have their schedules disrupted by vacations and outdoor activities.

What if the NBA were to pay WNBA players, if not what they play their NBA stars, at least what the Russians and other top European teams do, and booked their games not in the summer, when no one is paying attention, and instead in the fall, winter and early spring, side by side with the NBA?

Throw some money at ESPN, at Fox, whoever, to get prime time slots; launch a streaming service akin to the excellent NBA app, and advertise the heck out of it to get people to tune in.

Millions of young girls are playing basketball in rec centers and YMCAs across the country.

There’s your viewer base, ready-made.

There’s no reason that our top women’s hoops talents have to risk their freedom playing for shadowy figures to make a living.

This is a problem that seems so easy to solve that it’s not funny.


Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].