The cage was small, even for a cage, and Britney Grenier nodded as she walked into it. By that time, a month after her trial in Khimki, outside Moscow, on charges of drug possession, she knew the exercises. She pursed her lips as she offered her long arms in ink to the guard who opened the handcuffs. Greiner wore a gray shirt, gray shoes, and charcoal jogging pants. Her braids were pulled back, and wire-rimmed glasses framed her big, tired eyes. Griner is six feet nine inches tall, and her toy weight is over two hundred pounds. When I started playing in the WNBA, for Phoenix Mercury—she was the first pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft—she was such a dominant and dynamic physical force that she single-handedly changed the perception of possibilities in women’s basketball. (She threw twice in her first solo game.) Since then, she has won a WNBA Championship, four EuroLeague Championships, two Olympic gold medals, and has been named one of the 25 best players in WNBA history. But in the courtroom, as she awaited sentencing in what a US congressman had already described as a “show trial,” she appeared drawn and weak.
That was on the fourth of August. Six months have passed since Grenier was pulled from the security line at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Officials found e-cigarette cartridges containing traces of cannabis oil — seven tenths of a gram, roughly the weight of a small raisin — in their bag. Greiner told the court that she was unaware of the cartridges. She hastily packed up, while she was recovering Corona virus diseaseJoin the other members of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team that Griner plays for during the WNBA offseason. (Big players can earn six to seven times their WNBA salaries overseas.) Doctors in Arizona prescribed cannabis to her to help her deal with pain after more than a decade of injuries. She did not intend to bring any drugs to Russia, and did not realize what was happening to her as the nightmare spread. While she was being held at the airport, the translator blocked her; Griner had to turn to the Google Translate app to understand what people were saying. She said she was forced to sign papers without knowing what was on them. Her phone was seized and taken to prison. The maximum sentence for the charges was ten years.
Greiner shares a cell with two other English-speaking women, in a prison that was once an orphanage. Her bed was too short to lie on. After breakfast, the guests would go for a walk in the courtyard; Look at an old bust of Lenin. During the rest of the day, according to a report in Russian state media, there were books (Dostoevsky translated, a book on Keith Richards), Russian television, and letters. Through her attorney, she received emails, surveilled by Russian officials, from fellow WNBA players, friends, and family, including his wife Cheryl. It was her lifeline to the outside world.
On May 3, the State Department announced that she was being “unjustly held,” a designation that means the US government will be involved in negotiating her release. Her trial began several weeks later. Greiner and her lawyers have pleaded for leniency, but everyone knows too well to hope. A foreign national caught in possession of a small amount of drugs may not normally be sentenced to more than a month in prison, a fine, and deportation. But Greiner was no ordinary alien, and this situation was no ordinary. A week after her arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine, and relations between Russia and the United States were the worst since the start of the Cold War.
Near the start of Greiner’s trial, on July 1, her lawyers asked the judge to allow her to testify outside the cage, given her length. The judge denied the request but allowed her to sit. It was a rare mercy. Greiner sat, most days, for weeks, in the cage, a few feet from a wooden table crammed with lawyers and others, listening to the interpreter, her face in stone. I admitted guilt. The end of the game was not to clear her name but to bring her home. The experience was of a surreal quality, and not just because the outcome was more or less appreciated. Thousands of American citizens are arrested around the world each year, for alleged crimes ranging from traffic violations and protests by authoritarian governments to murder. Increasingly, some countries, particularly those hostile to the United States, are using the detention of Americans as a way to force expensive concessions – lifting sanctions, for example, or exchanging prisoners. When that happens, Brian Michael Jenkins, terrorism expert at RandHe told me, “The case has been changed and has nothing to do with the merits of the charges. We are now in the world of coercive diplomacy.” What mattered was not what Greiner did but who you were.
Britney Yvette Greiner grew up in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a housewife and a policeman. It was a fairly ordinary upbringing, except that it soon became clear to Greiner, and to all, that it was not ordinary. In her diary, she wrote, “I think I started to feel different when everyone started telling me I was,”in my skin. “At home, I was a carefree, inquisitive, mischievous little girl. At school, I was an eccentric.”
Greiner knew from a young age that she was attracted to girls. In middle school, she was five feet ten feet tall and skinny. She wrote that her classmates touched her flat chest, mocked her, and called her a boy. She wanted so badly to fit in, but seemed to be attracted by an equally strong desire to be honest and open. She knew that her father did not approve of homosexuality, and she was afraid of his displeasure; She tried to telegraph her sexuality by wearing her boys’ boxer shorts. When he finally learned she was gay, she remembers, he exclaimed, “I don’t raise any gay girls in my house! You can pack your things and get the fuck off!” (She moved to work with a coach for a month and a half, before she reconciled with her father.) She went to Baylor University, a Baptist school, although at the time it banned “homosexual acts”. Refusing to hide her sexuality, she clashed with her coach, Kim Mulke, who Greiner claimed told her to keep her private life private. She was appreciated for the glory she brought to her team but not for the person she was, and she knew it. She coped by ignoring her feelings, only to be overwhelmed, as she later admitted.
When Griner entered the WNBA, freshmen were still offered makeup tutorials. (refused). She became one of the first openly gay athletes in professional team sports, and the first Nike-sanctioned woman to appear in men’s streetwear ads. A black androgynous woman was superior to both men and women. Whether people recognized her or not, she couldn’t escape a stare. She told Morty Ayn, in an interview accompanied by a photo session ESPN magazineThe case of her body, in which she was posing naked. On the right side of her back, she had two skull tattoos and the words “Laugh now, cry later.”
Greiner was never able to fold her body into a school desk, or hide it in a crowd, but it allowed her to do things on the basketball court no one else could do as gracefully and as powerfully as she could. Her size and athletic gifts got her to the WNBA, but what really sets her apart is what she taught her body to do. When Greiner made it to the league, former Mercury coach Sandy Brundello told me, “She didn’t have good movement. She wasn’t a great examiner. Every year she was getting better and better.” Always strong in paint, she developed a devastating exterior shot. When the WNBA began accepting and celebrating many of its gay fans, Griner’s embrace of her sexuality became an inspiration. She gleamed on the field, wore a neat little tie, ate Skittles out of fists, and lit up the sky with a smile. Her agent, Lindsey Colas, the person most responsible for trying to make her famous, told me, “Britney Greiner doesn’t want to be famous.” “She wants to ride her skateboard down the street at dusk with a lollipop.”
Somehow, I managed to hold on to some of that joy even in prison. When teammate Brianna Turner wrote Griner, telling her she would be receiving an honorary All Star award, Griner joked that she would have the “worst base streak in All Star Game history”—zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists. Turner said Griner’s sense of humor in her letters “really surprised me, but it speaks to the kind of person she is — the life of the party, the one who always makes people laugh.” However, those who knew Greiner best were concerned when they saw photos and videos of her in the courtroom. “My wife is struggling, and we have to help her,” Cheryl Greiner told the media, explaining her decision to press even harder for Grenner’s release after months of silence. When the planned call between Cheryl and Greiner failed due to mingling at the US Embassy in Moscow, Grenier sent a letter to President Joe Biden. “As I sit here in a Russian prison,” she wrote, “alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I am terrified to be here forever.”
Greiner brought hard copies of photographs of each of her court appearances. When the cameras were on her, she held the pictures onto the cage bars. She uploaded a picture of her wife in law school; A photo of her close college friends; Photo of her Phoenix Mercury teammates; Another of the 2022 WNBA All Stars, in July, they all wear “42,” the number Griner, on their jerseys. “None of this was regulated,” her agent, Lindsey Colas told me. “This is her trying to express her gratitude.”
For the first two months after Greiner’s arrest, her friends, family, and fellow WNBAs–a group of women not known for remaining silent in the face of injustice–were extraordinarily quiet. Like the families and friends of many Americans who have been held hostage in the past, they wanted to allow the work of her release behind the scenes, to avoid saying or doing something that might jeopardize or slow down any negotiations. A week after Greiner’s arrest, when Russia invaded Ukraine, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia were severed, and severe sanctions were imposed. There was a fear that the grand clamor to release Griner back home would give the Russian government more leverage, with such a clear public interest making Griner seem like a more valuable asset to keep him in prison. And so people chose not to speak out loud. It was a choice that some later regret.
When the US government placed Greiner on wrongful arrest, in May, it indicated, on an official level, that a special envoy would work in parallel with the consular office, and that the most likely course of Grener’s return to the United States was diplomatic negotiations, possibly including a prisoner exchange. Unofficially, he indicated that the government considers her criminal trial a sham. In fact, if not officially, Greiner was a hostage—a term the government, and many outside of it, have avoided using, in part for political and procedural reasons. Jason Rezaian, Washington writer Mail told me, who spent more than five hundred days unjustly imprisoned by Iran.
The reclassification also means that her friends, family and supporters can be more vocal in calling for her release. The WNBA placed a Griner number sticker on every floor in the league. #FreeBG has become a popular hashtag. Her friends and family gave interviews to the press. They expressed their frustration, too. Families of those unjustly detained often wrestle with the question of how loud they are. Not everyone thinks that raising a detainee’s photo gives her kidnappers more leverage. “I always advise people to come out strong and public when that happens,” Rezaian told me. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being more assertive about it more quickly. But anyone who asks me, I will tell you frankly that you are harming your loved ones by remaining silent.” Allowing Russia to control the flow of information let it define the narrative from the start. The silence surrounding its position meant that it was impossible to know what was going on behind the scenes. These negotiations are sometimes very long. Some in the audience assumed that no news meant nothing happened or not enough behind the scenes.