Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and stand-out player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury basketball team was recently arrested in Russia on drug charges.
According to Russia’s Interfax News Agency, “As a US citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo Customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage.”
The Customs service issued a statement that didn’t mention Ms. Griner by name but did offer more specific detail. “The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the US citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil).”
The Russian news agency TASS reported the American woman who was arrested on the drug charges was Brittney Griner and that she had just disembarked from a flight from New York. They cited a law enforcement insider as their source.
Support from within the world of women’s sports poured out immediately. The Founder of GirlsTalkSportsTV, Khristina Williams tweeted out, “Brittney Griner is one of the biggest stars of the league and a generational talent. This really is unsettling.”
The WNBA issued a statement that read in part, “We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of the 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the US.”
USA Basketball indicated they were aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia as well.
Statements expressing concern for her well-being are completely appropriate. One would be hard-pressed to think of a more scary scenario than being detained in a Russian prison during wartime. Some statements, however, went far beyond concern. Many accused Russia of wrong-doing. Several demanded Ms. Griner’s immediate release. Among those making demands are Members of Congress and politically motivated advocates of various causes.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said she believes the arrest of seven-time WNBA All-Star was “targeted and purposeful.” Various Black and gay rights spokespersons laid out their own theories. Brittney was arrested because she is Black. She is being held because she is gay. The Russians nabbed her because she is gender non-compliant. One even suggested she was being held because she is 6 foot 9 inches tall.
There is no evidence to support any of these claims. What evidence we have seen consists of video and photos of the Russian Federal Customs Service security area. CBS News obtained the footage which clearly shows Ms. Griner being pulled aside by Russian Customs officials. In the video, they sit her down and open her bag. They go through it and discover envelopes holding vials of vape oils. Further investigation led them to the conclusion it was hashish oils for the purpose of vaping and getting high. The Russians claim it was a significant amount of hashish oil.
Lost among all the cries for Ms. Griner’s release and the review of all her awards and success in basketball is the question of whether or not she is actually guilty. No one has made the claim that she didn’t actually have the illegal drug. Not the Congresswoman. Not the civil rights activists. Even Ms. Griner’s wife, who issued a statement after learning of the arrest, didn’t protest that Ms. Griner couldn’t possibly be carrying drugs.
Perhaps making things worse for the hoops queen, two U.S.-based pot industry organizations issued statements seemingly supporting the Russian claims of possession, but suggesting the laws should be ignored. Toi Hutchinson, President and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project said “It is not uncommon for athletes to use these oils for their physical and mental health, and they should not be penalized for doing so.”
Toi apparently believes US federal law, the laws in a majority of states, the rules of most professional sports leagues and the laws of Russia itself should be suspended because the marijuana industry says so.
The Arizona Dispensaries Association went a step further. Executive Director Samuel Richard said, “No one should be afraid to travel as a cannabis consumer,” he continued, “It is past time for everyone around the world – including the US and Russia – to end their outdated bans on cannabis.”
I disagree with Samuel Richard, but I respect him and his industry’s right to express their opinion, lobby the public and legislators and try and change the law. The fact remains, however, whether they like it or not, the current law in Russia clearly prohibits hash oil. American culture has sadly evolved to many believing they can do whatever they want with no consequences. That may be true with the current prosecutors in San Francisco and New York City, but rest assured, that isn’t how they roll in Moscow.
Obviously, no one wants to see a young, talented woman held in a foreign land, particularly when that nation is a declared enemy of the United States. That said, personal responsibility and respect for the laws of each nation should be part of the discussion. If Griner did indeed violate Russia’s law, on what grounds should she be released? Because she’s American? That seems a bit arrogant.
As it turns out, it is also remarkably ironic that Brittney Griner will likely need the assistance of America itself if she is to come home anytime even remotely soon. Why ironic? In 2020 Brittney Griner and her Phoenix Mercury teammates refused to take the floor before games while the National Anthem was being played. Ms. Griner and one of her teammates lobbied the WNBA to stop playing America’s National Anthem altogether. She was quoted in the Arizona Republic as saying, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season.” Ms. Griner continued, “I personally don’t think it belongs in sports. … Black people didn’t have rights at that point. It’s hard disrespecting a song that didn’t even represent all Americans when it was first made.”
Perhaps she’ll appreciate America more when this unpleasant chapter in her life is concluded. The real question is, what should happen if she is guilty?
Should great athletes get a free pass for failing to follow the rules? A growing number of people seem to think so. No one disputes that Pete Rose was an all-time great in professional baseball. Nor does anyone, including Mr. Rose himself, dispute he bet on games that he coached and played in. It was a violation of baseball’s most sacred rule. It has earned Mr. Rose a lifetime ban from MLB, including from the Baseball Hall of Fame. There has been a growing chorus lately, however, calling to let him in the Hall. Why? Because he was really, really good. His supporters don’t think he should be held responsible for ignoring the rules.
What about DeShaun Watson? He has 22 separate women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment, yet much of the NFL off-season talk is about which team will be lucky enough to pull him away from the Texans. His athletic prowess clearly supersedes nearly two dozen separate claims of sexual assault. Should he be held accountable for his off-field actions or lauded for his football gifts instead?
To both of the above examples, the logical conclusion is that athletes, like the rest of us, must live with the consequences of their actions. They should not get a free pass. Brittney Griner falls in the same category, even if it is half a world away. Everyone hopes she is being treated properly, fairly and humanely. Everyone hopes she is given due process and allowed to put forward defense in a timely manner. If however, she is indeed guilty of violating Russia’s drug laws, she shouldn’t get a free pass simply because she has made millions of dollars playing a game.
At a time when the world is trying to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for his wrongdoings in Ukraine, America can’t simultaneously ask Russia to ignore violations by one of our own. Justice doesn’t always mean the accused walks free. Justice means the truth. Let’s make the truth about Brittney Giner’s guilt or innocence at least part of the discussion.
• Tim Constantine is a columnist with the Washington Times.