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Brittney Griner is being tortured in Russia and the outrage machine is predictably muted

SB Nation logo SB Nation 12/2/2022 Brady Klopfer
© Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

At some point today, 2018 WNBA MVP and two-time champion Breanna Stewart will fire off a tweet. It will be nearly identical to the tweet she posted yesterday, and the day before, and every day for a few months. The only difference will be the incremental change of a number.

Here’s what it will say:

It has been 288 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. @WhiteHouse @potus @vp , we are paying attention and we are counting on you. #WeAreBG

We’re fast approaching the one year mark in the wrongful detainment of Griner, one of the best and most influential players in WNBA history. In that year, the awfulness of Griner’s situation has only grown, while our collective outrage has moved in the opposite direction.

Stewie tweets. The occasional NBA player drops a sentence of support and solidarity, bookended by platitudes about leaving it all on the court in a meaningless midseason game. The SportsCenter ticker gives you a 12-word update while the anchors talk about what Deshaun Watson will do when he returns from his suspension.

Right now, that’s about all the coverage and all the outrage that’s on display.

It’s not enough.

Every dose of outrage is met by a token Reply Guy offering some iteration of the same garbage take: she committed a crime and is now paying the price they yell into the void, before high-fiving themselves.

Let’s put that to rest. Setting aside the fact that laws can and often are wholly immoral, Russian law states that a prison sentence of up to two weeks can be handed out for those in possession of six grams or less of marijuana.

Griner, in possession of a mere 0.7 grams of hashish oil, was handed a nine-year sentence in what the state department is calling a “sham trial.” And, more importantly, she was just transferred to a penal colony.

You don’t want to know the living conditions of a Russian penal colony, which is exactly why I’m going to outline them for you. Griner will partake in 16-hour work days full of manual labor, all while being denied medical care.

Perhaps most terrifying is that no one – or no one in the US, at least – actually knows where Griner is. She’s in a penal colony in Mordovia, an area full of penal colonies. Her exact location is unknown. Her conditions are unknown. Her health is unknown.

Mordovia’s penal colonies serve not just as a labor camp, but also as a place where torture and physical abuse are the norm. Racism and homophobia are seen as commonplace in Mordovia’s prisons, leaving Griner – who is not just an American woman, but a Black lesbian – a prime target for violent attacks.

But it’s not just Russia’s homophobia, racism, and misogyny that are damaging Griner – predictably, it’s America’s, too. While there’s some legitimacy in the argument that the attention Griner is receiving is commensurate with her celebrity status (she’s certainly making far more headlines then fellow wrongfully detained American citizen Paul Whelan), her gender, sexual orientation, and race are incontrovertibly suppressing the public outrage.

While not the be all, end all mark of popularity, Griner has 481,000 Instagram followers. That’s more than four times the following of Golden State Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo, almost twice the following of Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves, and a virtually identical mark to popular Memphis Grizzlies center Steven Adams.

DiVincenzo, Reaves, and Adams are straight white men, and their wrongful detainment for nearly a decade in a violent autocracy would cause a significantly larger stir than Griner’s has. This isn’t a point that’s up for debate. If you disagree with it, you are wrong.

The failure to keep Griner at the front of the news cycle has been a collective failure from everyone outside of the WNBA. The reaction from the NBA and its players has been decent, but not enough. From the outside, you would think that Griner was someone with a similar profession to NBA players, not one of the faces of their own subsidiary. The coverage from sportswriters, TV personalities, and other talking heads – myself very much included – has been weak. We all claim to love the agony of sports, but when it becomes too real we swiftly and silently pivot back to the thrill. And the outrage from the general public has been tepid, at best.

It’s fair to point out that Griner’s celebrity status doesn’t make her more deserving of our outrage than anyone else wrongfully detained in inhumane conditions. But it’s ignorant to assume that Russia doesn’t see the connection. Griner’s celebrity stature is part of why she was sentenced for nine years in living conditions that no human should ever experience. It’s a bargaining chip, and we owe it to Griner to take it every bit as seriously as the people detaining, abusing, and potentially torturing her are. It’s the bare minimum, and the only way to bring her home.

It’s been 288 days since Griner, one of the most accomplished active athletes in the world, was wrongfully detained in Russia. Her dominance on the court is palpable, but our outrage is not.

288 days. Labor camps. Unknown locations. Violence, abuse, and prejudice.

Brittney Griner needs our outrage. Our outrage is what can bring her home. So where is it?

Editor’s Note: It’s hard to know what each of us individually can do to help this situation but a good start would be re-tweeting Breanna Stewart’s daily reminder. If the same number of NBA fans who comment about a possible Russell Westbrook trade on social media also did this every day it would massively raise the volume on this horrible situation. Stewart’s daily tweets are getting less than one thousand RTs per day. That’s not enough.


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