MOSCOW, Russia — WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian court on Thursday to a nine-year sentence after finding her guilty on drug charges.
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
U.S. President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the verdict and sentence, which came amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Em Adler, of “The Next” women’s basketball newsroom, joined the Locked On Sports Today podcast to explain the significance of the sentence and what to expect on the timeline for bringing her home.
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“This is what was to be expected the entire time,” Adler said. “TJ Quinn of ESPN who has been the voice to follow on this has been saying all along that you need to be a prisoner to have a prisoner swap take place.”
While reporting has indicated the U.S. has offered to send Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan, we don’t exactly know what kind of timeline it would be for something like this to happen.
“Unfortunately, that’s where it gets tricky,” Adler said. “You can really dis-consider the 9-year sentence, it is what it is as a formality. But the problem is she could be home in a few months if the Biden administration is as strongly active on this as they’ve tried to say in recent weeks. But it could be another couple years, to be frank. The other American in Russia, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was included the proposed prisoner swap. He reportedly last February, 2021, the Biden administration was close on a prisoner swap for him that would’ve happened in a couple months from then and here we are a year and a half later.”
Griner and many WNBA players in America choose to play overseas in the offseason because of the money they can make. There has long been caps on amounts they can make in the WNBA. For those wondering why she was in Russia in the first place, this isn’t out of the ordinary for WNBA players whatsoever.
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“Most players play more overseas than they do in the United States, they play for higher pay overseas than they do in the United States,” Adler said. “Part of the thing with Griner is she just loves getting to know other people, other cultures. She’s been one of the best friends of any of her teammates on any team she’s played on. There were Russian teammates of hers that went to court to testify on her behalf who were just pouring their hearts out for her.”
While we’ve heard plenty from the WNBA and her teammates, as well as President Biden and others. It’s notable that her college coach when she was at Baylor, Kim Mulkey, now at LSU, has been noticeably silent about Griner.
“If you want to make it a little worse, we have heard from the head coach of Baylor now, who was not there when Griner was there,” Adler said. “We haven’t heard from Baylor either, or Mulkey, but we have heard from (Baylor head women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen).”
Adler also said with Griner’s detainment and now sentence, there has been plenty of talk about WNBA players now afraid to go play overseas.
“In talking to players, there seems to be a lot stronger consideration of where they’re playing overseas now than before. Certainly everyone who was playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, which I should mention is as dominant as a basketball dynasty as we’ve seen anywhere in the world in their respective league. This is a team that brings in MVP after MVP to play together at the same time."
"Some are playing in Italy, some are playing in Turkey, which really presents its own problems when you look at where the political situation there is heading. A number of players had been playing in Hungary the past couple years with autocrat Viktor Orban in power there. There could very well be strong issues there as well. Thankfully players aren’t really considering Russia at the moment, but it’s quite possible we could see issues, not quite this severe, but it could happen.”