We can all rejoice at the news that Russia has freed basketball star Brittney Griner. Griner was detained at a Moscow airport in February, after officials found in her luggage 19 grams of hashish oil, for which she had a doctor’s note. She was later convicted of possession and smuggling, and sentenced to nine years in prison and sent to a penal colony. That she’s on the way home is wonderful, even if the price was the release of the egregious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Here are four things I’d like to see next:
1. The return of Paul Whelan.
According to the US State Department, of the 17 Americans behind Russian bars prior to Griner’s release, two had been detained “unlawfully.” The now-freed Griner was one; the other is Paul Whelan, a former Marine detained since 2018 on charges of espionage that he and the US have heatedly denied.
Whelan told CNN that he was surprised not to be set free alongside Griner. US officials were quoted as saying that the Russians refused to negotiate his return. Before Griner’s arrest, the clamor for Whelan’s release was at best intermittent. Let’s hope that with Griner home at last, the pressure for Whelan’s return only grows greater.
2. Some appreciation for the American justice system, flawed though it may be.
Following Griner’s arrest, a number of commentators suggested that US laws regarding marijuana possession are often as punitive as Russia’s. The intent of such arguments wasn’t to laud Putin, but to encourage us to get our own house in order.
They have a point, but our criminal justice system, despite the many problems plaguing it, remains far better than Russia’s.
It’s unclear how many Americans are locked up for simple possession. US President Joe Biden’s Oct. 6 announcement of a pardon for those convicted of federal marijuana possession charges cleared criminal records for about 6,500 people. On the other hand, the decree didn’t apply to anyone behind bars.
I’m not defending the drug war. I’m aware of the severe racial disparities in marijuana arrests. And looking for work with a criminal record is challenging, even if you never want to jail; a conviction for marijuana possession might impede employment even in the legal marijuana industry. Nevertheless, can anyone now argue seriously that it’s just as bad to be arrested in the US as in Russia? I hope not.
3. Higher WNBA salaries.
Griner wasn’t in Russia on a lark. She was there to work. During the off-season, she earned a reported $1 million playing for UMMC Yekaterinburg, four times her salary in the Women’s National Basketball Association. About a dozen other WNBA players had similar deals.
If she earned more in the US, she wouldn’t have had to go.
Don’t get me wrong. I try to be data-driven, and I’m aware that the WNBA can’t conjure money out of thin air. High salaries won’t materialize until television broadcast fees increase significantly; higher payments for broadcasts will await better viewership numbers.
I get all that.
But let’s be hard-nosed. There won’t ever be a better moment for the league and the networks to hit up sponsors for more money. When Griner returns to the court, the ratings will justifiably explode.
4. More respect for diplomacy’s hard choices.
Critics are already lambasting the Biden administration for giving back Viktor Bout. Here’s Jim Geraghty at National Review:
From the end of the Cold War until his arrest in 2008, if there was an arms embargo, Bout flouted it -- Liberia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Congo, Libya. Whenever there was a dictator or warlord who needed weapons to mow down his enemies or suppress a suffering population, Bout was there to make a profit off of bloodshed. He earned his nickname, “the Merchant of Death.”
All fair points -- but diplomacy, like politics, is the art of the possible. No deal is ever equal. Spymaster Rudolf Abel did far more damage to the US than U-2 pilot Gary Powers did to the USSR. Perhaps a different president would have let Griner rot in a Russian penal colony until Putin selected a less monstrous crony to release, but that would have been the wrong decision. In the real world, we take what we can get. Biden made a tough choice in a difficult situation.
As for Griner herself, she’s probably just relieved to be back in the bosom of her family and safe again. But I hope she’s also fielding multiple seven-figure offers to tell her story. The money won’t make up for either the horrors Griner has undergone or the fear and anxiety suffered by her wife and loved ones. But rarely has there been a celebrity who’s earned so thoroughly the right to be heard.
Stephen L. Carter
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster." -- Ed.
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