Checkmate: Political Pawn of International Controversy

A blog post by Matthew Mattesi, Junior Associate

On February 17th, 2022, Brittney Griner was detained at a Russian airport as she arrived in the country to play for Ekaterinburg.[1]  While going through customs, Russian officials found vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage.[2]  Many argue that this arrest was solely an opportunity by Russia to use Griner as a pawn in retaliation for the United States involvement in Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine.[3]

Concerns arose from this publicity as many believed Russia would worsen its treatment and result in a greater bargain by Russia while attempting to negotiate Griner’s release.[4]  As such, following her trial, this is exactly what transpired.  The trial began in July 2022, when Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling illegal narcotics into Russia.[5]  Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for this charge.[6]

Griner’s presence in Russia was for an off-season league with a Russian basketball organization.[7]  Given the minimal pay women athletes, especially WNBA players, earn, many athletes supplement their income through these off-season opportunities.[8]  Throughout the off-season, women athletes can earn salaries exceeding $1 million, almost quadrupling top WNBA athletes’ base salary.[9]  Due to these alluring aspects, WNBA athletes like Griner have continued to travel to Russia to supplement their disproportionately low salaries.[10]  However, based on how Griner’s experience transpired, many WNBA athletes, if not all, will cross Russia off their list for the foreseeable future.[11]

Regardless of the criticism surrounding the arrangement to return Griner to America, it is undoubtedly in the nation’s best interests that Griner return to her country.  No matter the difficulty associated with this process, President Biden viewed it as an “urgent task” and “the right thing to do.”[12] Evidenced by this belief, Griner has returned to the United States following a trade as anticipated for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout.[13]



[1] Kylie Atwood et al., CNN Exclusive: Biden Administration Offers Convicted Russian Arms Dealer in Exchange for Griner, Whelan | CNN Politics. CNN, Cable News Network (July 28, 2022),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Jacob Sullum, Brittney Griner’s Sentence Highlights Stark Differences between Russian and U.S. Pot Penalties, Reason (Aug. 7, 2022), [hereinafter Sullum].

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8]  Alex Azzi & Lisa Antonucci, With Brittney Griner Still in Jail, WNBA Players Are Skipping Russia, (last visited Jan. 6, 2023).

[9] Id.


[11] Id.

[12] Sullum, supra note 5.

[13] Franco Ordoñez & Charles Maynes, WNBA Star Brittney Griner Has Been Freed From a Russian Prison, NPR., (last visited Jan. 8, 2023). .

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