WNBA’s Brittney Griner arrested for hashish at Russian customs

If we’ve learned anything from the turbulent collision of sports and cannabis policy over the past two weeks, we’ve learned that it isn’t wise to fly into a sovereign nation with draconian cannabis laws on the books while also carrying cannabis on your person. Though we will call the opening sentence the thesis of this piece, let’s breakdown how this happened (aside from the obvious “she packed it in her bags” statement).

The most recent in the saga of high-profile sports personalities to be caught on the wrong side of someone else’s law is Brittney Griner, a legendary college basketball player with 2000 points and 500 block shots during her NCAA career. Now, Griner plays center for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.

Photo by Lorie Shaull, used by permission under CC BY-SA 4.0

Last week, Griner was clearing customs at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, on March 5th, 2022, when she was detained after customs found vape cartridges containing concentrated cannabis extract. Russian customs have since released a video of the engagement. She has been denied consular contact since, as her arrest comes at a time of the highest tension between the United States and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.

The 2013 overall top pick in the WNBA is now the all-time slam dunk leader in the league, is a 7 time all-star, two time point leader, and WNBA champion in 2014. So, what is she doing flying into Moscow with weed on her, you might ask?

Well, let me tell you one more thing about this equation before we get to that. Brittney is a woman translating years of practice and her natural physical advantage into a limited shelf-life job that pays well for the duration – but just like all other sports… How long will it last? She’s at the top of her game, but the goal of a professional athlete is to maximize the return on their time and body. Some stars of years gone past manage 20+ years as a star in their sport (Nolan Ryan, Tom Brady, Randy Johnson) while others flare across the sky in a bright arc early, or are catastrophically injured, and disappear (Erik Hanson [huh, Mariner fans??], Bo Jackson, Sandy Koufax). Some stars are, for better or worse, simply not allowed to return due to their choices off or on the field. It’s a bit of a crapshoot.

According to The Atlantic, Griner earns about $211,000 per year playing in the WNBA, in her home country of The United States of America. Over the past 40 years, partially due to its eventual inclusion at the Summer Olympics, basketball has become wildly popular in Russia. Now, as the US is finding itself with a plethora of runoff talent in college educated and practiced women’s basketball players, new leagues are forming around the globe. Many American stars and secondary level players can find a professional job playing the sport of their dreams if they don’t mind spending a few months a year in a place like Russia, Italy, the Balkans, or France. In Russia, Griner earns a reported $1 million per year with her Russian team.

Now you might be asking yourself – Holy Shit. Why do they pay better?

Well, that’s a question answered easily. European/Russian women’s basketball has fans that show up to the games and buy the jerseys of the women players. They sell out arenas. They cheer, drink, and revel in the chaos of professional sports. The area is so starved for level professional talent to form a national league that they can afford to import American players and pay them a top-notch professional sports salary. They appreciate the level at which these women play the game.

Oh, the misogyny of it all.

I’m a guy. I was in the Navy. My mom is a hippie. I’ve raised daughters. You’d better believe I push back on inequity when I hear it. I’ve heard from other men that the WNBA isn’t exciting, the players aren’t good, it’s substandard, they don’t like the vibe…. It’s all excuses. This is Seattle. Before the Seahawks and Mariners, the Seattle SuperSonics were collecting league trophies. Basketball has been an institution, here. Then came the Storm, our own WNBA team. They have several of the greatest professional women’s basketball players of all time as current players or alumnus of the team (Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright, Lauren Jackson). The Storm have won several WNBA trophies.

My good friend and high school classmate Joel said it best when he told me he openly embraced all Seattle sports teams regardless of sex, or popularity of the sport. It was something he had to do as a lifetime Mariners fan. It was the sort of thing that a young, driven man who helped bring the sport of La Crosse to our High School in the waning years of our time there. Joel is one of the most egalitarian personalities that I know. He leads us with his torch high to light our way, and that leads me to Griner’s situation.

What can we do?

Well, if we don’t want our daughters who have refined their skills to expert levels to practice their talent abroad where they are arguable at elevated risk for exposure to law we consider unjust in our society, then we should focus on making their job more viable, here. Derek Jeter never went and played baseball in Japan, for a Japanese team. When the Yankees pay for one of the best Shortstops in the league, they protect their investment by paying them exorbitantly, and compelling them via terms of that pay to limit physical activity in non-approved regimens, sports, leagues, or pickup play. Until the WNBA can compensate their athletes at a remotely similar level, our talent will continue to look for more work abroad during the WNBA offseason. That’s simple economics.

Our part is bigger than that. I’d urge you to support these fine women, and their refined play. Watch their games on TV. Instead of replacing that Russell Wilson jersey with another Seahawk’s name and number, go get a Sue Bird jersey. She’s the fucking GOAT of the WNBA, after all, and she wears our regions identity on her jersey; she plays for YOU. She’ll always be a Storm member, like George Brett for the Royals, or Mickey Mantle for the Yankees. There are some other great choices, too. Get a Griner jersey, maybe.

  • Go to a Storm game. Take your daughter, son, spouse.
  • Stop saying shitty things about professional women’s sports
  • Buy a Storm jersey.
  • Catch a few games on the tube.
  • Bring up awesome plays at work, like you would a relived one handed grab on Superbowl Sunday.
  • When someone asks you what professional teams you love, say / include your city’s professional women’s teams.
  • Celebrate these athletes who attempt to bring us a unifying force, and empathize with them when they fall short or lose.

Just my two cents, folks.

None of this will prevent Brittney Griner from facing the Russian music with regards to the safer alternative, cannabis, at their border control area. While I wish her the best in expeditiously coming home during this trying time, I feel the road may be fraught for her and her loved ones.

The WNBA season starts May 6th, friends.

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