She is arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time and has been held in Moscow in the midst of the war in Ukraine. Fans want to know why more people aren’t paying attention.
In one of Brittney Griner’s last public appearances, captured by CCTV, the American professional basketball player is seen walking through airport security dragging a small black suitcase.
Griner, a star center for the Phoenix Mercury, had landed at Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, to play another season with a Russian league there.
In the security footage, she wears running shoes, black sweatpants, and a black hoodie with “Black Lives for Peace” written on the back, her dark hair hanging in braids to her shoulders.
At 6-foot-9, even by basketball standards, he towers over customs agents and other travelers.
In another shot, she is seen sitting across from a man, apparently a customs agent, who shakes his head “no.” Then nothing, until a Russian mugshot appeared on state television last week.
Ms Griner, 31, is believed to have been arrested by Russian authorities on drug charges.
A month after his arrest, little is known about his circumstances.
The uncertainty surrounding her fate has fueled an outpouring of support for the player, who is regarded by fans and sports analysts as perhaps the greatest female basketball player of all time.
And it also sparked a sense of outrage among some fans who say the response to Ms Griner’s arrest has been strangely muted.
Fans and pundits say the attention paid to her compared to male players exposes long-standing gender inequalities in professional sports.
“If this were an NBA [professional men’s league] player of her caliber … this would be on the cover of not just every sports page but every media page in the world,” said Tamryn Spruill, a sportswriter who is writing a book about the WNBA and the Griner’s contributions to the league.
Ms. Griner, a nine-year veteran of the league, is “the best of the best,” said Melissa Isaacson, a sportswriter and professor at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois.
“She is the Tom Brady of her sport,” said Ms. Isaacson. “You could very accurately argue that she is one of the best athletes in the world.”
Originally from Houston, Texas, she earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where she led the team to a national championship.
She is now one of the most dominant players in WNBA history, considered the best offensive player in the league.
Few have accomplished what Ms. Griner has: winning a college championship, WNBA and EuroLeague titles, and an Olympic gold medal. And, as is well known, her ability to nail is unmatched.
Off the pitch, she has also been seen as a trailblazer, coming out as gay at the age of 22, just as she entered professional sports.
He went on to become the first overall pick in the WNBA draft that year, and soon after, the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike.
“Before Griner, there was a shadow over the league, where it was like ‘don’t say gay,'” Spruill said. “And she was like, ‘To hell with that, this is who I am.'”
“BG has always been a pioneer,” said Griner’s teammate, Diana Taurasi.
Despite all this, Ms. Griner had a second job and that was why she had flown to Russia: to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg Euroleague team, where she had worked since 2014 during the US offseason.
About half of the WNBA’s female players compete overseas in the off-season. For most, it’s a way to increase their domestic income: WNBA players receive roughly five times as much in Russia as they do in the US.
“If she was Steph Curry or LeBron James, she wouldn’t be there because she’d be making enough money,” Spruill said.
Ms. Griner’s counterparts in the men’s league earn more than 200 times the WNBA’s maximum salary.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams and US and WNBA officials began removing players from the country.
But it was too late for Brittney Griner, who is believed to have entered Russia a week earlier, on February 17, although the timing is still unclear.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service said in a news release that a sniffer dog had led authorities to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player and found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency, Tass, identified the player as Ms Griner.
Russian authorities only confirmed her detention in the third week of March, although they revealed that she was detained at the airport in February. Where she is being held and under what circumstances she is not publicly known.
US authorities and Brittney Griner’s representatives have been mostly silent, except to say they are working to bring her home.
A spokesman for the state department confirmed the player’s arrest, telling the BBC they were “aware of and very involved in this case”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that US officials are “doing everything possible” to help her.
“There’s a lot I can say given the privacy considerations right now,” Blinken said.
Ms Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said she was in “close contact” with the player and his lawyer in Russia, but was unable to comment further.
While there is no indication that Ms. Griner’s arrest is related to the invasion of Ukraine, some US officials have indicated that strained US-Russian relations may jeopardize her safe return.
“We don’t want Mrs. Griner to become a pawn in the political battle that is raging around the world right now,” said US Congressman John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“The war in Ukraine has basically severed diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia,” Garamendi said. “That’s going to exacerbate this problem.”
Russia has so far blocked Brittney Griner from consular access to the US embassy, he said.
She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug charges.
The US embassy in Russia did not respond to a request for comment.
As Ms Griner nears the end of what is believed to have been a month of detention, some fans were left in disbelief at the apparent lack of attention from the sports media towards a world-class athlete in prison.
Some have speculated that the silence may be intentional, an effort to avoid inflaming an already precarious situation amid negotiations with Russia.
But others, like Spruill, say the somewhat muted coverage of Griner exposes the stark inequalities female athletes face.
Far more ink has been devoted to male players, whether it’s football player Tom Brady’s intermittent retirement, Novak Djokovic’s Covid saga in Australia, or Aaron Rodger’s vaccination status, than to Brittney Griner, Spruill notes.
Nearly 60,000 fans signed an online petition, organized by Ms. Spruill, demanding that the US government prioritize her safe return and treat her like “any other sports icon.”
“There has absolutely not been enough coverage,” Spruill said. “It’s hard for me to read that other than a choice of the broader media.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram last week about the painful wait.
“People say ‘stay busy.’ However, there is no task in this world that can prevent any of us from caring about you. My heart, our hearts, skip beats with each passing day,” she wrote.
“There are no words to express this pain. It hurts, it hurts us.”