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Lessons for Brittney Griner

Perhaps Griner's time in Russian jail will inspire newfound gratitude for American government.
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(Keeton Gale/Shutterstock)

The WNBA has garnered more attention over the past week than it has in its entire 26 year history. This is because Brittney Griner’s trial, in Russia, is now underway.

Griner, who was arrested on the count of smuggling drugs into Russia, was detained on February 17. After her flight landed from New York, Griner was passing through the Sheremetyevo Airport when “​​a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage,” according to the Russian Federal Customs Service, and further customs inspection “confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance." 

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And so, for bringing drugs into Russia, Griner has been charged with drug smuggling—an offense that carries up to ten years in prison. On Thursday, she pleaded guilty to the charges brought against her, though she added that she had no intent on breaking the law. 

In May, the Biden administration announced it had determined Griner was being wrongfully detained in Russia. Since, there has been much talk about getting Griner back to the U.S., which has naturally turned to speculation about a potential prisoner exchange. This is where Griner’s guilty plea becomes quite important, as Russian officials have stated that there will be no official talk of prisoner exchange until a verdict is reached. However, there is a name that has been floated around by Russia: Viktor Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death.”

Bout received his 25-year sentence in 2012, where prosecutors described him as “among the world’s most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers” who delivered weapons to groups he suspected were going to kill Americans. Trading Viktor Bout, “Merchant of Death,” for Brittney Griner, WNBA player, seems like a lopsided deal. That's not just my opinion, but the opinion held by some DOJ officials as well. 

Those advocating for Griner’s release have made some rather preposterous claims. Take, for instance, Cari Champion at CNN who said, “If she’s not free, we’re all not free. It’s everyone’s responsibility.” Excuse me, what? We’re all not breaking Russian laws right now. Whether or not her potential sentence is “just,” she did break the law in Russia. Further, that conception of just is our conception of just, not Russia’s. Which brings me to my last point: Brittney Griner protested the national anthem in 2020, claiming “I personally don’t think it belongs in sports,” and that it is “a song that didn’t represent all Americans when it was first made.” 

She is merely repeating claims often made recently about the national anthem and our institutions of government in America. She has now found herself in a position where she is begging for those institutions to grant her freedom again. To respond to Cari Champion: I, despite Brittney’s situation, am free because I am living in a country whose institutions provide that freedom. Champion’s statement is in line with the liberal conception of freedom, centered around abstract ideas about human rights. Brittney Griner’s “human rights” mean nothing right now, because she is in a country where the government does not make them tangible through its constitution and the rule of law. 

Perhaps Griner's time in Russian jail will inspire a newfound gratitude for our government, our national anthem, and our Anglo-American heritage, which provide her the freedoms she now no longer enjoys. Hopefully it will make her rethink breaking Russian laws, too. 

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