Brittney Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February 2022, after vape cartilages containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage. The 32-year-old US professional basketball player was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, which began this week. So where is the media outrage over her treatment? asks Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu
As Brittney Griner begins her imprisonment in a Russian penal colony which according to Amnesty International is amongst the worst in Europe, infamous for forced labour, rat infestations and beatings, it seems the mainstream media has moved on from the incarceration of this celebrated African American WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medallist.
It begs the question, what exactly has changed. Is this no longer a sensational human-interest story? Has the media found her conviction of nine and a half years on drug charges in a Russian prison justified? Perhaps the court of public opinion has also convicted her and she’s no longer newsworthy? I may be left with more questions than can be answered, but I’m not surprised by the lacklustre media coverage.
Griner is a Black female openly gay sports person of high repute and a two-time Olympic medallist. Had she been White, male and straight under the same circumstances and same accomplishments, the media would have made every effort to keep this miscarriage of justice and harsh conditions of her imprisonment in a Russian prison at the centre of the public’s mind. They would have put pressure on the US government and international community to do more to bring her back home.
I can’t imagine the world not being put on standstill had this been Tom Brady or Michael Phelps for instance. She was arrested in Moscow on February 17, a week before Russia’s war in Ukraine, for having banned vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her possession. She pleaded guilty and was convicted in August to nine and a half years in prison for drug possession and her appeal against this draconian sentence was rejected in October. President Biden has recently stated that his administration is pushing hard for Russia to consider US proposal for a prisoner swap.
It is fair to say that since August, the world has been dominated by news deemed globally impacting. The death of Queen Elizabeth II; escalation of the Russian Ukraine war; hike in energy and cost of living crisis; rising inflation; disastrous premiership of UK Prime Minister Liz Truss; and US midterm elections to name a few have occurred since Brittney’s conviction. But surely there was room to keep consistent coverage of Griner’s plight.
There is a stinging double standard and hypocrisy that rings true about the coverage or lack thereof, of Brittney Griner’s situation. This is not an issue of whether or not Griner broke Russian law – that fact has been established and settled in a court of law to which she pled guilty.
This is an issue of treating Griner differently when undoubtedly the disproportionate length and harshness of her sentence is completely politically motivated due to the power struggle between Russia and the United States.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Brittney Griner is a political pawn, and her life and liberty are quite frankly bearing the brunt of this political power struggle. Even worse is that as a Black woman, she ranks low in the priorities of these two nations which hate each other, are institutionally racist, project antiblackness and still have ongoing antagonism towards LGBTQ+ communities. Griner is a clear representation of intersecting inequalities experienced by Black and ethnic minorities from marginalised communities.
At home in the United States, Griner experiences the indignity of being abused, stereotyped and attacked by right wing media because she is Black. Some have attacked her activism in calling the WNBA to stop playing the US national anthem and said she should remain in Russian prison until she publicly repudiates her critical stance on the anthem.
Others have misgendered her, called her a hypocrite for needing the US government to rescue her, and called her a Black lesbian millionaire. Black athletes who advocate for social justice are always targeted by the right wing. The political power struggle doesn’t end between the two nations but extends to the political rivalry between the Republicans and Democrats, with the Republican party capitalizing on her plight to promote its self-interest. Even former President Donald Trump used Griner’s arrest to trigger his base when he called her a “potentially spoiled person” who entered Russia “loaded up with drugs.”
None of which is true as even the US State Department has categorically stated that Griner is wrongfully detained. If this abuse, disinformation and attacks are what she is dealing with at home, what chance does she have outside her own country? Whichever way you look at this, Brittney Griner is left vulnerable, alone and without effective support to gain her freedom. The mainstream media and political establishment continue to fail her.
Malcolm X’s famous quote still rings true more than 50 years later, that the most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. I would humbly extend this accurate summation to include Europe too.
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Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a political & women’s rights activist, taught intersectional feminism to female refugees and asylum seekers; scrutinizes government policies from a gender and diversity inclusion perspective; and co-organises women's marches and social campaigns. She is also a New York Attorney and Solicitor of England & Wales with broad expertise in the financial services industry, writer, public speaker and political commentator featured in mainstream and online media. She founded the Women in Leadership publication as a platform to drive positive change on topical issues that impact women globally through inspiring personal leadership journeys; and established She@LawTalks to promote women & BAME leadership in the legal profession through universities and secondary schools. An academic enthusiast, she has an Executive MBA (Cambridge); PhD (Birkbeck); LLM (London School of Economics & Political Science); MA (Westminster) and LLB Hons (Buckingham University).
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