Celebrated US basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court on Thursday (July 7), with hopes of a more lenient sentence, in light of the tense relationships between the US and Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist has been in custody since February 17, when two vape cartridges containing small amounts of cannabis oil were found in her luggage while she was at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Cannabis oil is an illegal substance in Russia, and if charged with large-scale transportation of drugs, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honour,” Griner announced in court on Thursday. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she added. Griner said that she unintentionally carried the cannabis oil with her, because she had packed in a hurry, as reported by The Guardian. The next court hearing has been scheduled for July 14.
The 31-year-old was selected in 2021 as one of the best 25 players in the history of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and is considered to be the best offensive player in the league.
Standing at 6 feet 9 inches, the centre player has been with the team Phoenix Mercury since 2013. Griner had earlier received a basketball scholarship to Baylor University and in 2010, was the seventh player to dunk during a women’s college basketball game.
In 2012, she won a national level college championship and was given the Player of the Year Award. Since she began her professional career in 2013, she has won two Olympic gold medals with the US women’s national basketball team and a WNBA Championship.
Near the onset of her professional career, Griner came out as a lesbian in 2013 and was the first openly gay athlete to sign an endoresment deal with Nike.
Griner arrived in Russia on February 17 to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team, during the WNBA off-season. She has played with them since 2014.
Around 70 WNBA players are reportedly playing with international teams this year, instead of taking time off in the off-season, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. Since the war, all but Griner have left the region.
Many WNBA athletes chose to play overseas because of the massive pay disparity compared to their male counterparts in the National Basketball Association (NBA), whose earnings can go up to tens of millions of dollars. The minimum pay of an NBA player with one year’s experience is projected at $1.637 million, higher than the salary budget of an entire WNBA team, which is capped at 1.4 million, according to the Boston Globe.
Currently, WNBA players receive a minimum base salary of $60,000 and maximum of $228,000, and according to CNBC, Griner, who is one of the best basketball players in the world, reportedly earned a base salary of $221,000.
Many players don’t earn the majority of their incomes from WNBA, and can earn much higher salaries in international teams due to greater corporate and government support, according to The New York Times.
Griner, who is reportedly being held in a prison outside Moscow, was detained a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow have been at an all time low, with the US and western countries imposing strict sanctions against Russia.
The US State Department said that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and some critics accuse Russia of using the basketball star as a political pawn in the present crisis. The matter is currently being handled by the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, the office which helps bring back Americans held hostage overseas.
Russia has denied taking Griner hostage. On Wednesday (July 7), Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said, This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence. … Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up,” as reported by The Guardian.
“The law has been violated, and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some U.S. states, are inappropriate in this case,” he added.
US lawmakers have accused Russia of illegally detaining their citizens. US Embassy officials attended Griner’s trial on Thursday after which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted that a letter from President Joe Biden was delivered to her. “We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he added.
Whelan was a former US Marine and in 2018 was arrested by Russian authorities on charges of espionage.
US officials have stated that they’re doing everything they can to make sure she will be released.
The next court hearing will take place on July 14 and one of Griner’s lawyers, Maria
Blagovolina, told the Washington Post, “We hope that the confession of guilt will influence the court to hand down a more lenient sentence, and we will ask for that”.
While there are growing speculations that Griner might just be convicted because of political factors, commentators argue that the more likely chance she will be released is if there is a prisoner swap between the two countries.
One name circulating the media is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader, also known as the “Merchant of Death”, who is currently facing a 25 year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S designated terrorist group.
Russia has long demanded his release. However, as per the Associated Press, the disparity between Bout and Griner’s alleged crimes could perhaps be undesirable for the US.