Hard lessons, questions surrounding Houston-born Olympian detained by Russian authorities

Griner had to know that Russia has strict drug laws. Photo via: Wiki Commons

WNBA superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in a Russian detention facility – Russia isn’t saying exactly where - accused of smuggling illegal drugs into the country.

The Houston native allegedly was caught with vape cartridges loaded with hashish oil in her baggage during a security check at Sheremetyevo Airport, the busiest airport in Russia. Russia has released a photo of Griner in detention but has given little information of her legal status or whereabouts.

U.S. Representatives Colin Allred, Sheila Jackson Lee, Joaquin Castro and State Department officials are leading the effort to get Griner released and on her way back to the U.S. Castro accused Russia of “wrongly detaining and imprisoning U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens are not political pawns.”

If Griner did try to bring hashish oil into Russia, she picked the wrong time and wrong place. Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and U.S. retaliatory economic sanctions, Russia-U.S. cooperation is at an all-time low. There may be little our government officials can do to convince Russia to let Griner go.

Rep. John Garamendi, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN, "Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment." If Griner’s case goes to trial, she would be required to use Russian lawyers in her defense.

Although Russia has not given any specifics about Griner’s situation, Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code prohibits “illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof.” If convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison.

Griner presumably was detained at the airport on or about Feb. 18 since she was photographed at a New York airport hotel on Feb. 16. Russia isn’t saying when Griner was taken into custody.

The interest and effort by U.S. officials to get Griner released raise the question of celebrity justice. Griner is a basketball powerhouse, 6 ft. 9 and 200 pounds, arguably the greatest, certainly the most accomplished basketball player ever from Houston.

While playing at Nimitz High School in North Houston, she was a McDonald’s All-American and national High School Player of the Year. She once blocked 25 shots in a game against Alief Hastings, still a prep record. For comparison, the NBA single-game record for blocked shots is 17 by Elmore Smith in 1973. The NCAA Division 1 record is 16 by Mickell Gladness in 2007.

While at Baylor, Griner was a NCAA champion, two-time AP Player of the Year, two-time first team All-American, Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and only player ever to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots.

She was the first overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft. She is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time scoring champion, eight-time blocks leader, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and WNBA champion. She also is a two-time Olympic and World Cup gold medalist. She is a cultural icon, the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement deal by Nike.

Should any of that matter? Griner has played eight seasons for the UMMC Ekaterinburg team in the Russian league. About half of WNBA players play overseas during the offseason because foreign countries pay higher salaries to women players. All of them who play in Russia or Ukraine, except Griner, have returned home.

Griner had to know that Russia has strict drug laws. Many “ordinary” Americans are in foreign jails and thousands of foreign nationals are held in U.S. prisons without a public uproar by elected officials.

How do you feel about Griner’s situation? If a foreign celebrity were caught breaking U.S. drug laws, would you be OK with intervention by their homeland officials setting them free while U.S. citizens remain in our prisons for the same crime?

This isn’t to say that other celebrities haven’t benefitted from their fame. It happens routinely. In 1980, for example, Paul McCartney’s scheduled 11-city tour of Japan turned into a nine-day stay in the Tokyo Narcotics Detention Center after airport security found a half-pound of marijuana in his bags. McCartney claimed the marijuana was for his personal use (hard to believe). Japanese officials let McCartney go after fellow inmates began performing Beatles singalongs. Officials deemed McCartney more a jailhouse nuisance than anything else.

I love to travel to foreign countries. When I see a bargain airfare, I go. But before I get on the plane, I read up on my destinations’ laws and customs, their do’s and don’ts. I’ve been to Russia four times, three as a tourist and once on a TBS Broadcasting press trip. I know Russia’s drug laws. One time, a friend and I were walking along Red Square and security police stopped us. Where are your papers? We showed them our passports, airline tickets and keys to our rooms at the Golden Tulip Hotel. They let us go without a comment or “enjoy your stay.” There was no mistaking them for the Moscow Welcome Wagon.

While Griner needs to come home, she should have known that Russia is on the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” advisory list. She should have known that the U.S. and Russia aren’t on best of terms. She should have known Russia’s drug laws. She should have known better.

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