Front and Center: We Are Failing Brittney Griner

In the latest edition of Front and Center, Melanie Schwimmer ’23 argues that Amherst students need to do more to show their support for Brittney Griner.

Front and Center: We Are Failing Brittney Griner
Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and NCAA National Champion, has been detained in Russia since early February. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“My mind is fading here,” Brittney Griner told her wife Cherelle last month. Griner, who goes by BG, has been wrongfully detained in Russia for 267 days. BG is one of the best basketball players in the world. She was detained on Feb. 17, 2022, for possessing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow to play for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. On Oct. 25, an appeals court in Moscow upheld her nine-year sentence, which effectively sends her to serve the remainder of her imprisonment in a Russian penal colony.

In her appeal, BG’s lawyers emphasized that her nine-year sentence for bringing in less than a gram of medically-prescribed hashish oil is “unusually harsh, even by Russian legal standards.” Human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson explained that based on how drug law and trials operate in Russia, if BG received more than three years in jail, then her extended imprisonment is politically motivated. Griner took responsibility for bringing the oil into Russia, which was prescribed by her U.S.-based doctor, saying she included it in her luggage due to packing in a frantic manner. Her punishment does not fit the crime. After her appeal was denied, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan released a statement that called the trial a “sham judicial proceeding,” and stated that BG is currently “wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances.” The U.S. government has made it clear that her overly extended prison sentence indicates that she is a pawn in a larger sociopolitical struggle between the U.S. and Russia.

A key concern is how BG will be treated as an out lesbian and Black woman in a Russian penal colony known for its homophobia. The colony she will likely be transferred to includes a factory where prisoners are required to work 10- to 12-hour days and just 10 small rooms, each housing 80 women who sleep on planks and share only three toilets. In order to attend her appeal, BG was put in a cage too small for her frame and driven around two and a half hours to the site. She is not being treated like a human being.

Gold medals do not protect Black queer women. People were quick to point out that if this was Lebron James, he would have been home within a day and the story would have been plastered all over the news. But this would never happen to Lebron James. He would never have to go play abroad, because he makes millions of dollars playing stateside and has numerous offseason training opportunities. There was more public outcry when three UCLA basketball players were temporarily detained in China for shoplifting in 2017.

And what are we doing about it at Amherst? Nothing. I have not had a single conversation about BG on campus that I have not started. I have heard more people talk about the WNBA this year than ever before, but no one talks about BG. When I do bring her up, most people do not know what I am talking about and quickly change the subject. We have not talked about her in any of my Amherst courses, clubs, or jobs. Where is our outrage? Where are the Amherst athletics teams? Where are the resource centers? Athletes could wear “We Are BG” warm-up shirts, and the resource centers could hold an event with Amherst Athletics to write letters to BG. There are concrete steps we can take, and it is up to us to raise awareness and follow through.

I specifically challenge white male athletes at Amherst to show their support for BG. We are often too quick to put the onus on Black, queer, and female athletes to speak up in the realm of social justice. It is past time to hold white male athletes to the same standard. You have been given a platform at Amherst, I beg you to use it.

We can all demand action, athlete or not. We can call our representatives to let them know that bringing BG home should be a top priority. We can write letters to BG sending her strength and our support ( I completed these two steps in 20 minutes and know that everyone reading this article can do the same. Talk about Griner with your community — do not let her be forgotten. One of BG’s teammates, Brianna Turner, told the LA Times,  “There’s not enough outcry, no, period, there’s not enough outcry.”

We are so invested in sports at the college, that we build our entire Homecoming weekend around a football game. It’s well past time to carry that energy into the intersection of sport and justice. We must work to bring BG home.