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Free Brittney Griner: Calls Grow for Biden to Win WNBA Star’s Release from Russia After Prisoner Swap

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Image Credit: Enrico Calderoni/AFLO SPORT

The Biden administration participated in a prisoner swap with Russia this week, freeing a Russian pilot who was jailed in Connecticut on drug charges in return for a Marine veteran imprisoned in Russia since 2019. Meanwhile, the fate of jailed basketball player Brittney Griner remains unclear. The Phoenix Mercury center is one of the biggest stars of the WNBA, but both the league and the Biden administration have said little about her case since she was arrested at a Russian airport on February 17 on allegations of carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. “There are signs that this is clearly politically motivated from the start, but the White House and the State Department seem to be giving the WNBA this advice to remain silent,” says journalist Maya Goldberg-Safir, who wrote about the lack of public attention on Griner’s case in a recent article for Jacobin. “We know that in order to get Brittney Griner home, the White House will need to intervene.” Goldberg-Safir also notes that Griner, like many WNBA players, plays abroad during the off-season for extra income, and her arrest highlights the gender pay gap in professional sports that may have placed her at additional risk.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Many were surprised when news broke Wednesday that Russia and the U.S. had participated in a prisoner swap. Russia released Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot jailed in Connecticut on drug charges. Reed had been imprisoned in Russia since 2019. His parents had campaigned passionately for his release, with protests and multiple hunger strikes. They met with President Biden at the White House last month. Reed’s father, Joey Reed, told CNN he spoke to his son soon after his release.

PAULA REED: He seemed to be in shock a little bit.

JOEY REED: They had moved him to another prison. They had moved him to a Moscow prison this week. We didn’t know that. He went to the same prison that I think Paul Whelan was held in for a long time, Lefortovo prison. And then they flew him from there to Turkey. And then Trevor quickly told us that the American plane pulled up next to the Russian plane, and they walked both prisoners across at the same time, like you see in the movies.

AMY GOODMAN: Trevor Reed’s father Joey referred to another U.S. citizen still held by Russia, former marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage charges he has denied, in a trial U.S. officials have said was unfair.

The release of Trevor Reed has also led to growing calls for the Biden administration to do more to help free U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, a Black lesbian WNBA player. She was detained in Russia February 17th after she was picked up at a Russian airport on allegations of carrying cannabis oil vape cartridges. She faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Brittney Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, seven-time WNBA all-star. She has played for a team in Russia for the past seven years, as well as in the United States. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said a U.S. official was able to meet with her last month. He spoke on CNN.

NED PRICE: Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition, and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the former professional basketball player Lisa Leslie told the I Am Athlete podcast last month that the women’s basketball world was not told to advocate vocally for Griner’s release.

LISA LESLIE: What we were told was to not make a big fuss about it, so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation in a war, so to make it like it’s not that important, or don’t make it where like “Free Brittney,” and we start this campaign, and then it becomes something that they could use.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Maya Goldberg-Safir, an independent writer and audio producer, co-director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, wrote a new piece in Jacobin headlined “Free Brittney Griner Now!”

Welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, it is stunning what Trevor Reed’s parents did. They didn’t stop. They held up signs. They protested even when Biden would be in town, and caught his eye — he spoke to them — used the media nonstop. And their son has now — is now back in the United dates. And yet we hear, like we just heard, that the family and the State Department is saying that people should keep silent about Brittney Griner, that there’s quiet negotiations that are taking place. Maya, can you tell us more about what’s happening in this all-star’s case? She plays in Russia but also for the Phoenix Mercury in Arizona.

MAYA GOLDBERG-SAFIR: Yes. Brittney Griner is an incredible athlete, one of women’s basketball’s superstars, perhaps the greatest of all time. You mentioned many of her accolades. At the same time, the base salary in the WNBA is capped at about $230,000, and nearly half of the league, its players, go abroad in the off-season to make higher wages that they can’t make in the United States.

So, Brittney Griner was in Russia, like you said. She’s been playing for this team, that pays very well in Russia, for about seven years. She’s flown in and out dozens of times. And February 17th was different. She was arrested at customs allegedly for having hashish oil in her luggage.

Notably also, this was one week before Russia invaded Ukraine. And I think it’s also really worth noting that Brittney Griner is, as you said, a Black lesbian. She’s 6-foot-9. She has tattoos all over her arms. She is outspoken about being proud about her sexuality. She breaks gender norms. And we know that this is an intersection of identities that Putin and the Kremlin have a history of really targeting in rhetoric and in action. And so, I think it’s worth asking the question of whether that played into the reason shows picked up at that time. There are signs that this is clearly politically motivated from the start.

But the White House and the State Department seem to be giving the WNBA this advice to remain silent. And that is in line with the advice that they give all families whose loved ones are detained abroad when there are signs of it being a wrongful detainment. This the same advice that Trevor Reed’s family heard, that Paul Whelan’s family heard. And the idea is that by staying quiet about it, the State Department and the White House can more easily negotiate a better outcome.

And I am praying that they have a strategy, that they are negotiating to urgently get Brittney Griner home. But it’s impossible to know. And the truth is that when you think about this black box of silence, and you ask, “Who does this silence really benefit?” I think that there’s the chance that this silence most benefits the government to find a favorable outcome for them, not necessarily for the life of Brittney Griner. And so, it’s worth questioning, like these other families ended up questioning. Trevor Reed’s family stayed silent for a while and then spoke out and led this advocacy and this public campaign fearlessly for years. And we can see the results now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Maya, could you talk about who she is? She wrote an autobiography very soon after she joined the WNBA called In My Skin. What does she talk about in that book?

MAYA GOLDBERG-SAFIR: Yeah. So, Brittney Griner is an incredible athlete. She is also, to me, a really important political and cultural figure, and I think one of the most important political figures in women’s basketball and in sports in the last 10 years.

So, she has been overcoming huge obstacles throughout her entire career. In college, she went to a Christian university, Baylor University in Texas, that had anti-gay rules at the time in 2012 — she graduated in 2013 — still in the student handbook. And she wasn’t allowed to come out, by her coaches and the administration. Soon after she was drafted by the WNBA, she wrote this autobiography, In My Skin, where she talked openly and critiqued that strategy to not let her come out publicly, to be denied her full self-expression. She even wrote in this autobiography, “Becoming a professional basketball player wasn’t just about making money or proving myself. It was about freedom, too.”

So Brittney Griner has been seeking freedom for a long time. She has long faced vitriol and public backlash around questioning her gender. And she is somebody who has become an outspoken advocate for mental health. She is someone who is proud of being a lesbian. And I think she’s a huge part of why the WNBA is now so supportive of its players being openly part of the LGBTQIA+ community. That wasn’t always the case in the WNBA. And I think that her story, and her willingness to tell it, was a huge turning point.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but, Maya, this showing the disparity in pay for women and men in U.S. sports, why she had to go to Russia, to begin with, I mean, the difference between what she gets paid in Phoenix as a basketball star and what she gets paid in Russia?

MAYA GOLDBERG-SAFIR: Right. So, women make a fraction of what men in the NBA make, women in the WNBA. And so, it’s a critical part of making the salaries that they need to make during their short sports careers to go and play abroad. And that is the reason that she was in Russia in the first place. I think that’s really significant to bring up. And the WNBA has started to bring up this point of pay inequity in sports.

I think it’s also — this goes beyond an economic issue. This is a political issue, in my opinion. And we know that in order to get Brittney Griner home, the White House will need to intervene. And that’s why I think it’s so important right now, when this is a timely matter and subject, to speak out, hold our administration accountable for bringing Brittney Griner home, and really champion her as a cultural and political icon.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Maya Goldberg-Safir, independent writer, audio producer. We’ll link to your piece in Jacobin, “Free Brittney Griner Now!”

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