Corrections and Clarifications: An earlier version of this column made an incorrect reference regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A week before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Brittney Grenier flew into Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. Russia’s Federal Customs Service discovered e-cigarette cartridges containing small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage and arrested her.
She has arrived as one of the elite athletes in women’s professional sports, winner of the NCAA National Championship, Olympic Gold Medalist and WNBA World Champion.
Now I stand on the edge of the abyss.
Today we’re naming Brittney Griner “Arizonan of the Year” because no other Arizona newsmaker in 2022 captured the public’s attention as intensely as she did. Nor did anyone’s story in this case evoke the kind of fear and foreboding she had been experiencing for nearly 300 days.
Greiner finds herself caught up in a war
Greiner finds herself caught not only in a war between the Russians and the Ukrainians, but in a historic shift in the global world order. Russia has awakened the defensive NATO and Western Europe has rallied to arm and finance the Ukrainian resistance.
Greiner’s fate is now in the hands of one of the most brutal despots on the planet – Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Many have argued that Greiner has no one to blame but herself for her predicament — and that she broke Russian law and will now pay the consequences.
These people fail to understand the fundamental nature of Vladimir Putin and the Russian justice system.
If the Russians were holding one of the world’s greatest athletes a week before their invasion, we guess that was likely no coincidence. When the Russians announced that the bazaar was open and Griner could be obtained at a price, well, there is a name for this kind of behaviour. Call it hostage taking.
Putin’s bad behavior has been well chronicled
Justice in Russia is what Vladimir Putin says it is justice, and thus its fate will ultimately be decided by Putin.
For Greener, it was like entering a dark room.
Putin’s bad behavior has been well chronicled. He has taken control of his country and its economy and runs it like a mafia man, enriching himself and sycophantic about his business. He has ordered the killing of Russian journalists and dissidents.
He is an egotistical fanatic of Russia’s imperial past and celebrates it by conquering its neighbors – first Georgia, then Crimea, then eastern Ukraine and finally Ukraine.
It was that last invasion that sealed his reputation as a modern monster—giving his forces the power to summarily execute Ukrainian men and women and using his bombers to try to wipe out Ukrainian society.
His control of Brittney Griner’s fate meant just about anything, from imprisonment to forced labor to being tortured to death in one of the old Soviet concentration camps.
Greiner was sent to the worst prison in Russia
A young woman who enjoyed so much of America’s abundance, its freedom and opportunity, saw in a matter of hours at a Moscow airport that her whole life had been turned upside down. She now has no rights and may not have a future.
The Russian court found her guilty and sentenced her to nine years in prison. She is assigned to the worst prison for women in the Motherland – IK-2, in the Mordovia region 300 miles east of Moscow.
Nadia Tolkonnikova, a member of the Russian punk and protest group Pussy Riot, has served time in another Mordovian prison and called IK-2 is the worst in the country. She told the world’s media that she was notorious for forced labour, squalid living conditions, rotten food and torture.
Tolokonnikova became one of Griner’s most ferocious advocates, keeping her case to the cameras and describing the abuses of the Russian penal colonies.
In the United States, Greener’s wife Cheryl worked with American civil rights leaders and the WNBA and NBA to bring her predicament to light and attract the attention of the White House.
The WNBA worked on Griner’s case
WNBA women, who honed their protest skills during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020, built a high-profile campaign — “We are BG” — and teamed up with NBA greats to generate massive star power around the Griner case.
This is our sister.WNBA players vow to keep Griner in the spotlight
The Biden White House cleverly enlisted Griner’s notoriety to try to put another American hostage on his back, Paul Whelan, in a deal for Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, a.k.a. “the Dealer of Death.”
After months of waiting for the Russians, the White House learns that the only deal possible is a one-to-one deal for Griner. White House officials said that the Russians — for whatever reason — were unwilling to include Whelan in any deal.
After 294 days in captivity, Brittney Griner has returned to the United States.
Not all American reactions have been positive.
Greiner drew attention to other hostages
Some conservatives recalled that Greiner had called her own Phoenix Mercury in 2020 Stop playing the national anthem. We like to remind these critics that she did so during a cultural awakening in which African Americans were calling attention not only to the modern mistreatment of their people but to the atrocities committed against them over centuries.
It goes without saying that the African American experience is different from the European American experience, and if black people used their American rights to protest racism, they did so to make this country better and more deserving of its founding ideals.
Brittney Griner can’t help but be changed by this experience that may have ended life as I knew it. We were going to encourage her to take her newfound freedom and use it to help bring attention to other American hostages in Russia, including Paul Whelan and Mark Vogel.
But such is her character, she actually began to do so in her correspondence with President Joe Biden while she was still imprisoned in Russia.
Her statement upon her release underscored this commitment: “President Biden, you brought me home knowing you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home, too.” I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone who played a role in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be complete.”
It is not out of any personal bravery or past achievement that we call Brittney Griner the Arizonan of the Year, but as a single person who has been caught up in the tectonic shifts of history and has become the most important newsmaker in our state in 2022.
This is the opinion of the Arizona Republic editorial board.
Arizonans past of the year
- 2021: Election Defenders. Six Republican elected leaders risked political destruction to defend election integrity.
- 2020: Arizona Health Care Workers. For their professionalism and commitment to their fellow human beings and their endurance in a pandemic with no end in sight.
- 2019: Tom Bushatzky and Ted Cook. These water managers overcame differences to help reach a historic compromise over the Colorado River’s water supply.
- 2018: Kirsten Sinema. Not only is she Arizona’s first female senator, but her insistence on bipartisanship shows us what politics should be like.
- 2017: John McCain and Jeff Flake. The Arizona Senators stuck their necks out and paid the price for it. In doing so, he reminded us of core American values.
- 2016: Osiris-Rex. The space mission headed by Arizona scientists promises to reveal key parts of who we are.
- 2015: Doug Ducey. The new Arizona governor has scored two big policy wins in his first year in office.
- 2014: VA Informants. They defied an angry, vindictive administration for highlighting the mistreatment of veterans.
- 2013: Yarnell Volunteers. Those who helped the victims of the fire that killed 19 people are a perfect picture of selflessness.
- 2012: John Keel. The Arizona congressman’s work ethic and unique willingness to delve into detail stunned supporters and exhausted the opposition.
- 2011: Gabrielle Giffords. The Arizona congresswoman has become the epitome of strength and resilience, and a role model for Arizona and the nation.
- 2010: volunteer. In the worst economic times a generation ago, volunteers were not needed and never appreciated.
- 2009: Sandra Day O’Connor (Arizona contract). The accomplishments of the former US Supreme Court justice have made her one of the most powerful people in the world.
- 2008: John McCain. For his historic run for the presidency, his calm leadership during the darkest hours of the Iraq War and his courageous fight for immigration reform.
- 2007: Charities. A group, not a person, earned the distinction for their hard work, generosity, and critical mass.
- 2006: Michael Crowe. The 16th president of ASU took a risk that changed ASU.
- 2005: Jim Culp. The Arizona congressman took up Social Security and immigration reform when others preferred to walk away.
- 2004: Pat Tillman. He put aside a football career with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country and give his life as a military guard.
- 2003: Sandra Day O’Connor. In a year that has seen historic decisions from the US Supreme Court, its opinion has always mattered most.