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SPORTS WAS SENDING STRONG MESSAGES TO PUTIN … UNTIL BRITTNEY GRINER
The widespread ban of Russian athletes from international competition is undermined by the arrest of the WNBA star, who can’t be defended if she had hashish oil inside her luggage in Moscow
Planet Sport has been swift in its rebuke of Vladimir Putin, including a dose of hold-your-nose hypocrisy in Switzerland, where the International Olympic Committee called for a ban of Russian athletes after conveniently ignoring atrocities for years.
Finally, Thomas Bach is channeling Lennon instead of Lenin. For now.
“Give peace a chance,’’ said a statement from the IOC president, who tidily can join in our eternal wish now that the Winter Games are finished — and the TV billions deposited — with the next Summer Games not arriving for 28 months. By then, of course, Bad Vlad might launch his own Olympiad.
But sports also must be cautious not to exacerbate global tensions and muddy the troubled waters of wartime. To that end, it’s difficult to muster sympathy for Brittney Griner, the American basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, if she was reckless enough — so foolishly oblivious to world events — to have packed vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage last month. Did she not assume, when boarding her flight from New York to Moscow, that a dog might sniff her bag upon arrival and prompt an X-ray check at Sheremetyevo Alexander S. Pushkin International Airport?
Wouldn’t Putin’s customs officials then arrest and detain her as a pound of American flesh? And wouldn’t they do so at the most fraught of moments between the superpowers, a flashpoint in time when Putin has described U.S. sanctions “akin to a declaration of war’’ against Russia?
I realize Griner has bravely spoken about her mental health issues, which surfaced from being ridiculed in her youth, when she was bullied about being taller and physically different than other girls. In seventh grade, she thought about hurting herself. “We don’t talk about things, we don’t talk about our feelings, put it in a box and forget about it. It's something that’s hurt us as a society,’’ Griner said last year, addressing why she left the WNBA Bubble at the height of the pandemic to undergo counseling.
Still, she has explaining to do, behind bars, facing a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Did Griner not anticipate that Russia, which either had invaded Ukraine by the day of her arrest or was about to launch a long-threatened attack, might hold her on suspicion of transporting drugs? Did it occur to her that a period in custody, which has spanned days if not weeks, makes her the perfect political weapon for Putin in gaining leverage against the Biden administration? Was she not aware the State Department had been warning Americans since late January to curtail all travel to Russia for obvious reasons — “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the embassy's limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia … terrorism and the arbitrary enforcement of local law’’ — and that someone in her well-known position conceivably could be set up on ginned-up charges?
There was no reason for Griner to be on Putin’s dangerous soil. Other U.S.-based players who use WNBA offseasons to play overseas — where they are paid handsomely by teams such as Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, Griner’s employer for several seasons — have been fleeing Russia and Ukraine. She is the last one there, and Putin doesn’t care about her mental health history. Back home, there is considerable concern for her welfare.
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern,’’ said Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, in a statement.
“We love and support Brittney, and at this time, our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home," said a statement from the Phoenix Mercury, her WNBA team for nine seasons.
At 6 feet 9, Garner has been a massive presence in her sport since her freshman dunking days at Baylor, where she authored a massive career that included a 40-0 national championship season. But controversy has followed her, to the point no one should be shocked by allegations of possessing cannabis oil, which is typically inhaled and lit for the desired high. Her pro career has been marred by temper flareups, punches and ejections, and in 2015, before marrying an WNBA player, Glory Johnson, both women were arrested in a domestic violence case and suspended seven games by the league.
“Brittney and Glory were involved in a physical altercation with each other at their home. It began when Glory pushed Brittney in the shoulder and Brittney pushed Glory in the back of the neck,” the WNBA summarized in a statement. “The confrontation escalated to include wrestling, punches, and the throwing and swinging of various objects. Brittney received a bite wound on her finger and scratches on her wrist, and Glory received a scratch above her lip and was diagnosed with a concussion.’’
So I’m not sure where USA Basketball was coming from when it said in a Saturday statement: “Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism …’’
The instinct, I know, is to defend her as an American in Putin hell. Who hasn’t seen the scare movie “Midnight Express,’’ a true story about a Long Island hippie who was caught trying to smuggle two kilos of hash out of Istanbul and spent five years of torture in a Turkish prison/insane asylum before escaping?
It’s a good assumption Brittney Griner won’t be finding a similar hatch. Why would she tempt fate in the first place? Is she of right mind? What might happen to her in custody? Before her arrest, sports was sending strong messages to Putin — such as the penalties imposed by FIFA, soccer’s governing body — for whatever sports is worth at a time when fun and games aren’t as significant.
Soon enough, though, two top Russian tennis players will be making their way to American hardcourts in southern California for the BNP Paribas Open. Daniil Medvedev, who beat Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final and fell to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, has ascended to the world’s No. 1 ranking. Andrey Rublev is No. 6.
How will they be received at Indian Wells? A better question: Why are they allowed to participate? The International Tennis Federation condemned the invasion and barred players from Russia and Belarus from competing in team events, but the ITF is letting the likes of Medvedev and Rublev play independently — as neutral athletes independent of national affiliation. It helped when Medvedev took to Twitter and called for peace while Rublev wrote on a TV camera lens: “No War Please.’’
But soon enough, the unspeakable truths of today’s world will be in full view at the World Cup. Like China at the Beijing Olympics and the wealthy Saudis who’ve tried to woo Phil (Show Me the Money) Mickelson and other PGA Tour stars to their rival golf league, “sportwashing’’ will be in full view in Qatar. That country, guilty of horrific human rights abuses, wants to improve its reputation via soccer. The event is happening in November.
Banned by FIFA, the Russian Football Union is appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Know what happened the last time Putin asked for mercy from the Court of Arbitration? A four-year doping ban was reduced to two years and, next thing you knew, Russian athletes were competing in the Tokyo and Beijing Games.
It’s Bad Vlad’s world. The rest of us just live and suffer here. That’s why prayers might be in order for Brittney Griner and her vape cartridges.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.