When news first surfaced that basketball star Brittney Griner had been detained by Russian officials, some believed it might help pave the path to free other Americans being held captive in Russian jails.
After all, one could easily assume that Griner’s fame and storied WNBA career with the Phoenix Mercury — second in scoring, first in blocked shots, sixth in rebounds — would likely fuel widespread media coverage of her arrest and that she herself might become a galvanizing symbol against the detainment of two other Americans at the hands of Russian authorities, especially as the world watches Russian troops decimate Ukraine in real time.
But in the weeks since the 31-year-old was all but disappeared after being accused of smuggling hashish oil into the country — a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison — that type of mass attention has not materialized.
Aileen Gallagher, an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University, says, “It is absurd this isn’t a huge story” dominating the airwaves as well as the front pages of America’s largest newspapers.
“It is a clear domestic connection to the biggest story in the world right now that also involves an athlete who is considered one of the best to ever play the game,” Gallagher told NPR.
She called it the “exact inverse of the ‘missing-white-woman syndrome,'” a term coined by journalist Gwen Ifill to describe the constant news coverage, largely by cable news outlets, after a white woman goes missing. In Griner’s case, Gallagher said, “We haven’t seen anything like that.”
When Chinese tennis phenom Peng Shuai went missing last year after accusing China’s former vice premier of sexual assault, the tennis world mobilized and kept the story on the front page, Gallagher noted. “But there’s very little of that coming from the WNBA or the NBA,” she said.
The WNBA has in fact been fairly tight-lipped since Moscow announced it had arrested the basketball star. To date, the organization has issued only one statement, saying, “We are of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the US”
ESPN investigative reporter TJ Quinn explained that the limited response from the WNBA, Biden administration leaders and even Griner’s family is deliberately deliberate. Even more importantly, he said on the ESPN Daily podcast, the absence of a spotlight and rampant media attention on the case is working in Griner’s favor.
“People around Brittney and the US government know that if you make too big a deal of it here, you are not only risk bringing attention to it, but you add value to her as an asset,” Quinn said.
And if the perception is that she is a powerful cultural symbol, he noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide to take the case out of the hands of the Russian court system and make an example of Griner.
“They have nominally a rule of law in Russia, but not when Putin decides they don’t. Then it’s the rule of one man,” he said, adding that under those circumstances, it could go very badly for Griner, who is a Black, gay American woman in a country that has recently passed a series of homophobic and discriminatory laws against LGBTQ people.
Gallagher, of Syracuse University, disagrees with the argument that too much news coverage could backfire and that it behooves Griner to have the criminal case proceed somewhat under the media radar.
“That is presupposing that the criminal charges are legitimate, that the criminal justice system is a legitimate one … and that the Russian court system is a level playing field for a foreign national who is gay, which is already against the law in Russia And that’s just not true,” she said.
Given the current state of the war that Russia is waging in Ukraine, Gallagher said, the American media has an obligation to highlight what is happening to Griner.
“The American people need to be reminded that this is happening, because it’s important to understand who we’re dealing with in Vladimir Putin and the danger he poses.”
She added: “He is a leader who can arrest people on perhaps rumped-up drug charges and then kind of make them disappear. And that’s really frightening. And people need to know that and understand that.”
Very little is known about Griner’s current circumstances. She was arrested sometime in February, though the exact date is unclear. Limited closed-circuit TV footage of the incident shows authorities searching through her suitcase shortly after her arrival at an airport outside Moscow. Officials have said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
On Thursday, a Moscow-area court told Russia’s state news agency TASS that she will remain in custody for at least another two months.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., on Thursday claimed that the lack of mass attention to Griner’s situation is due to her gender and skin color.
“We cannot ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner wasn’t a Black woman, it would be plastered across the news that she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia,” Bush wrote on Twitter.
“Free Brittney Griner,” she added.
Tamryn Spruill, a sports journalist who is writing a book on the WNBA, made similar comments this week, saying, “If this was an NBA player of her caliber … this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world.”