THANKS A LOT, BRITTNEY GRINER, FOR SETTING A DANGEROUS MAN FREE
We can be relieved that the WNBA star has been released from Russian custody, yet her foolish mistake — vape cartridges, cannabis oil — forced the U.S. to release notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout
A parade? You mean there actually are Americans who want to stage a nationwide celebration for Brittney Griner, welcoming her home like a five-star war hero? I am pleased she has been released from a Russian penal colony, from the sinister clutches of Bad Vlad, but I also recognize how her foolishness forced the U.S. into one of the worst deals in the history of geopolitical negotiation.
Because she was irresponsible and tone-deaf to global conditions last February — when she placed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage and, of course, was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport — our country’s most notable women’s basketball player shot an airball into Vladimir Putin’s grubby paws. Her ghastly error in judgment handed him the raw leverage to confine her for almost 10 months, waving her as a pawn in President Biden’s Botox-tightened face amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And with the holidays upon us, as an opportunistic Biden realized Griner’s release would build more momentum for the Democrats and his re-election hopes, the U.S. was inclined to finally relent this week and hammer out a one-sided, humiliating and, I might add, very dangerous prisoner swap. No doubt America was fleeced, exploited, hosed. Make no mistake, Biden had to make the deal now, or Griner might have died in custody given her history of mental health issues and concern from her wife, Cherelle, that she was experiencing some of her “darkest moments” in recent weeks.
But never forget this: Thanks to Brittney Griner and her cannabis oil, Viktor Bout is a free man today, back in Moscow. That is nothing to celebrate.
Bout is known as the “Merchant of Death,” a notorious arms dealer who conspired to kill American citizens, officers and employees before he was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury. He was sentenced to 25 years in U.S. custody but served less than half the sentence before his Thursday release. Putin values him as a Russian operative who, according to prosecutors, was in the process of selling anti-aircraft weapons to what he believed were Colombian terrorists. When they turned out to be U.S. drug enforcement informants, the feds finally were able to nail a slippery target whose character inspired a 2005 movie, “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage.
“One of the world’s most prolific arms dealers,” Eric Holder, then the U.S. attorney general, said at the time.
“A very dangerous man,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York. “As the evidence at trial showed, Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries. He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans.”
Said Bout’s lawyer, sending a message from his client, per the New York Times: “He believes this is not the end.”
Viktor was right. Sad to say, this is not a “Rocky” movie. Bout is not Ivan Drago, ultimately vanquished by Rocky Balboa in the 15th and final round. As we speak, who knows what Putin has planned for Bout (pronounced “Boot”) at the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were all smiles and hugs at the White House, joined by Griner’s overjoyed wife, as the President referenced “painstaking and intense negotiations.” Griner will spend an indefinite period in a San Antonio military hospital.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney and for Cherelle and her entire family and all her teammates back home. I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney is in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home,” Biden said at a news conference. “And the fact remains she has lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma. … She endured mistreatment in a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best of America.”
Political spin is what we expect in such situations. What, is Biden about to acknowledge a bartering butt-kicking? If a lesson is to be learned from the ordeal, here it is, kids: Don’t try to sneak drug-smoking paraphernalia, which might contain residue, into a country where marijuana is illegal and the kook-in-power lives to torture all things America. Or else you might end up inside Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Mordovia. Also, the WNBA should consider higher salaries for top players so they needn’t moonlight in U.S.-averse lands, such as Russia, where Griner was headed to resume her schedule with club team UMMC Ekaterinburg when she was arrested. She should consider herself lucky that her plight was prioritized over that of former Marine Paul Whelan, another U.S. prisoner in Russia, who is serving a 16-year sentence after his conviction on espionage charges.
“Today, my family is whole. But as you are aware, there are so many families who are not whole,” Cherelle Griner said. “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
Biden tried to explain. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” he said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. … We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release. I guarantee that. I urge Russia to do the same.”
The other day, while I waited for my burger and fries at a favorite Santa Monica hangout, an elderly Black woman engaged me in discussion at the next table. She wanted to know if I was aware of the Brittney Griner story.
“Does it have anything to do with race?” she asked.
No, I said.
“Does it have to do with her being gay?”
No, I said.
“If it had been LeBron, would they have let him go?”
No, I said, adding that Russia might have kept LeBron James for the next 50 years if he was foolish enough to enter Russia with weed.
“Then what is it about?” she wondered.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but it’s about a prominent U.S. athlete who shouldn’t have put drugs in her luggage while entering Russia on the eve of a Ukraine invasion. It’s not about race. It’s not about sexuality. It’s about being reckless while traveling and enabling Putin to abuse his power. If it were you or me, they’d have shipped us to Siberia and we’d never be heard from again.”
I braced for an argument.
“I think you might be right,” she said.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question 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.