Russia detained US basketball star Brittney Griner more than a month ago. Why have we heard so little about her?

It’s unclear if the arrest of the Olympic champion was politically motivated. But the case also speaks volumes about the treatment of female athletes in the US

One of the US’s top athletes has been detained in Russia for almost a month. You would think that would be an enormous story, right? I mean, a celebrity caught sneezing is considered newsworthy (the actor Jennifer Garner, in case you missed it).

Wrong. Coverage of the detention of Brittney Griner, a star player in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and a two-time Olympic champion, was until very recently so sparse that there is a good chance this is the first time you are hearing about it. If so, here is the background: on 17 February, Griner, who plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, was arrested at an airport near Moscow. The 31-year-old was accused by Russian customs authorities of having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison. That would be a nightmare for anyone, but it doesn’t help that Griner is black and openly gay. Russia, I don’t need to tell you, is hardly an LGBTQ+ paradise.

There has been a lot of outrage on social media about the fact that Griner’s detention hasn’t been bigger news. Some of that online outrage (shockingly!) is misplaced. The people firing off indignant tweets along the lines of “WHY IS NOBODY TALKING ABOUT BRITTNEY?” could have answered their own question if they had done five minutes of Googling. The Washington Post, for example, reports that people familiar with the case have explained that Griner’s arrest has been kept quiet deliberately because of worries that high-profile coverage could make her more valuable to Russia and jeopardise her release.

If that is the case, why am I writing about Griner? Well, because the keep-it-quiet strategy hasn’t worked and US lawmakers are now openly discussing the situation. The athlete’s detention was first reported by the New York Times on 5 March and has been snowballing into a bigger story since – not least because Russian state TV has started broadcasting mugshots of the athlete. The genie is out of the bottle; it is useless to pretend otherwise.

While it is not clear whether Griner, who was detained days before Russia invaded Ukraine, was arrested for political reasons, her situation has certainly been politicised. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing Griner’s home state of Texas, recently told the news website the Hill, for example, that she believes the arrest was “targeted and purposeful”. CNN is running headlines proclaiming that her arrest is the “most audacious hostage-taking by a state imaginable”.

There are a lot of unknowns about Griner’s detention, but here is one thing we do know: she wouldn’t have been in Russia if women’s sports were more respected in the US. Griner reportedly earns more than $1m (£770,000) a season playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg; almost five times the $221,450 she got in base pay to play in the US last season and almost 10 times more than the average WNBA salary of $130,000. While that money is obviously nothing to sniff at, it is peanuts compared with what the male players get. Stephen Curry, the highest-paid player in the NBA, is reportedly earning $45.8m this season.

Griner wasn’t the only WNBA star supplementing her income by taking on work in Russia; it is common practice. In 2015, UMMC Ekaterinburg even paid the basketball star Diana Taurasi to sit out the WNBA season so she could be fresh for the Russian season. “We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade,” Taurasi complained. Russia hasn’t been a communist country for decades, of course, but her point is well taken.

I don’t know what the history books of the future will say about the current era (there is a helluva lot to be said!), but I do hope they won’t pretend that sports are apolitical. Griner has got a lot of flak in recent years for walking off court during the national anthem in protest against police brutality. Sports shouldn’t be political, a lot of people said. I hope the terrible Ukraine crisis, and the reverberations it has had around the world, has been a wakeup call to these people: everything is political.

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