Explained: WNBA star Brittney Griner sentenced in Russia, what next?

A Russian court on Thursday (August 4) Brittney Griner, American basketball star sentenced possession and smuggling of narcotics, sentencing her to 9 years in prison and a fine of 1 million rubles in the politically charged case. The verdict comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at an all-time low, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked a wave of Western sanctions.

US President Joe Biden has accused Russia of wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner. “This is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with his wife, relatives, friends and teammates,” he said.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist has been in custody since February 17, when two vape cartridges containing small amounts of cannabis oil were found in her luggage while at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

“I want to plead guilty, your honor,” Griner said after taking the helm on July 7. “But there was no intention. I didn’t mean to break the law,” she added.

Griner said she unwittingly took the cannabis oil with her because she packed it in a hurry, reports The Guardian.

Who is Britney Griner?

The 31-year-old was selected in 2021 as one of the top 25 players in Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) history, and is considered the league’s best offensive player.

Standing 6-foot-9, the center player has been with the Phoenix Mercury team since 2013. Griner previously received a basketball scholarship from Baylor University and, in 2010, was the seventh player to dunk during a women’s college basketball game.

In 2012, she won a national-level college championship and received the “Player of the Year” award.

Since starting her professional career in 2013, she has won two Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national basketball team and a WNBA championship.

Early in her professional career, Griner came out as a lesbian in 2013 and was the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike.

Why was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner arrived in Russia on February 17 to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team, during the WNBA offseason. She has been playing with them since 2014.

About 70 WNBA players would play with international teams this year, instead of taking off-season leaves, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. After the war, all but Griner left the area.

Many WNBA athletes have chosen to play overseas because of the huge wage disparity compared to their male counterparts in the National Basketball Association (NBA), whose earnings can run into the tens of millions of dollars. The minimum salary for an NBA player with one year of experience is projected at $1.637 million, higher than the salary budget for an entire WNBA team, which is capped at $1.4 million, according to the boston globe.

Currently, WNBA players receive a minimum base salary of $60,000 and a maximum of $228,000, and depending on CNBCGriner, who is one of the best basketball players in the world, reportedly earned a base salary of $221,000.

According The New York Times.

Geopolitical tensions

Griner, who is believed to be held in a prison outside Moscow, was held a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow have fallen to a low point, with the United States and other Western countries imposing strict sanctions against Russia.

The US State Department has said Griner was “wrongfully detained”, and some critics accuse Russia of using the basketball star as a political pawn in the current crisis.

Russia has denied taking Griner hostage. On Wednesday July 7, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said: “This is a serious breach, confirmed by irrefutable evidence.

“…attempts to present the case as if the American was being unlawfully detained do not hold up,” he added, as reported The Guardian.

“The law has been broken and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which by the way is punishable in some US states, are inappropriate in this case,” Zaitsey said.

US lawmakers have accused Russia of illegally detaining their citizens. U.S. Embassy officials attended Griner’s July 7 trial, after which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted that a letter from President Joe Biden was delivered to him.

“We won’t give in until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” Blinken said.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine. was arrested by Russian authorities in 2018 for espionage.

Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

So what happens to Griner next?

Griner’s defense team said they were “very disappointed” with the verdict and would appeal. Under Russian law, Griner has 10 days to appeal, and his lawyers say they expect a hearing in a Moscow court next week, as reported. The Associated Press.

There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to bring Griner home. His conviction could pave the way for a possible exchange of prisoners between the two countries.

A name circulating in the media is Victor Boutthe Russian arms dealer, also known as the “merchant of death”, who is currently facing a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to sell arms to a US-designated terrorist group.

Russia has long demanded his release. However, according to The Associated Pressthe disparity between the alleged crimes of Bout and Griner could perhaps be undesirable for the United States.