How Much Sympathy Is Owed To Brittany Griner?

Brittany Griner, the WNBA superstar, has finally been sentenced by a Russian court for illegal drug possession. Absent the intervention of other agents and factors, she will serve nine years and six months in a Russian prison. She’s already been detained in the country since her arrest in February. It is obvious, however, that the tale is far from over.

The announcement of the tought sentence prompted President Biden to emit a typical bit of futile grandstanding, as he tweeted, “…Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.” It is pretty hard to be more blatantly futile, disingenuous and incompetent in a tweet than that. Biden doesn’t know that she was “wrongfully detained;” all indications are that she violated Russian law. “It’s unacceptable” implies that the United States won’t accept it, but as Biden well knows, the U.S. can’t and won’t do anything to force Griner’s release. Calling on a foreign nation to ignore its laws and law enforcement system to give an arrogant foreign violator a Get Out of Jail Free card is about as serious as ordering a foreign country to use Pig Latin, but that’s our Joe: talks tough, looks pathetic. The last part of the manifesto is especially silly. If being reunited with friends and family were a justification for releasing convicted criminals, then we should empty our own prisons. (To be fair, that is what a lot of Joe’s supporters want to see happen…a lot of Democratic district attorneys, too.)

An earlier Ethics Alarms comment on this case [Item #2] closed with this:

An arrogant, greedy, foolish celebrity, male or female, who violates a foreign country’s laws should be treated by our news media and the government with exactly the same level of attention as a retired sanitation worker from Newark who does the same, massively stupid thing.

Now that we know the full extent of the mess Griner has gotten herself into, just how sympathetic should we be? Over at the (excellent) conservative blog Victory Girls, Nina Bookout writes, “I honestly don’t have any sympathy for Brittany Griner.” That seems unethically harsh to me. Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are important ethical values. She is a young woman whose career and freedom are now in jeopardy, and, by U.S. cultural standards, the price she is facing for a series or reckless, arrogant mistakes in judgment seems excessive. As satisfying as it can be to see rich celebrities brought down by hubris, complete callousness regarding a case like Griner’s approaches cruelty.

Still, she knowingly defied a State Department warning not to travel to Russia, and did so for money, although she is hardly destitute. She carried with her substances that she knew were illegal in Russia, and that she knew carried serious criminal penalties. Her explanations and excuses strain credulity even if one is not a Russian judge: for example, a U.S. doctor has no authority to waive a Russian drug law, but Griner tried to use a letter from her physician justifying medical marijuana use by the athlete to get around her illegal possession charges. Now she is causing an international incident, and it may take the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to persuade Russia to return Griner to our shores.

Bout, an illegal arms dealer whose nickname is “The Merchant of Death,” was convicted by a jury in 2011 of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He’s about half-way through a 25 years prison sentence. It is not unlikely, if Bout has to be traded for Griner, that her foolishness will be indirectly responsible for many deaths.

I still have to conclude that she deserves our sympathy and compassion.

But not too much.

16 thoughts on “How Much Sympathy Is Owed To Brittany Griner?

  1. The movie, Midnight Express, should be mandatory viewing for those traveling to authoritarian countries.

    I would have more sympathy for Griner is she had not been so vocal and resolute about protesting the playing of the national anthem at WNBA games.
    If freed by prisoner exchange; would she stand for the anthem in the future?

  2. I have no empathy for Griner, for I cannot figuratively put myself in the shoes of someone who would do something so epically arrogant and stupid. I do have sympathy for her as I understand the pain of unpleasant consequences, both for her personally and the others directly affected by her arrogance and stupidity. Compassion leads me to conclude that her sentence seems harsh to American sensibilities, but then she was a fool to (1) go to Russia at all, and (2) while knowingly -it seems- violating their drug laws.
    Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
    Trading Griner (or any petty criminal) for Bout seems like a really lopsided swap, consequence-wise. But of course, nothing is too good for the favored intersectional classes these days.

  3. Clearly Russia isn’t giving the King’s Pass to Griner since she was going over there to play ball and provide useful anti-US propaganda by doing so. It makes me wonder if they planned for this to happen.

    Regardless, I feel sympathy for her that I would feel for any American citizen caught up in the trappings of a foreign country’s legal system without the protections afforded us here.

  4. When I first read the story, I had assumed that Russia had pulled out the stops to convict and punish an American, because nine years for a Cannabis vape pen seemed egregious. And it is egregious…. But it’s apparently actually in line with Russian sentencing guidelines…. Which is yet another great reason not to visit Russia. Just saying.

    But there is probably still an element of political leverage here…. People get stopped at borders with contraband literally every day, and my impression is usually the contraband is confiscated and either the person is either allowed in absent their drugs or turned away. I feel like if this law were regularly enforced to this extent this wouldn’t be the first time we’d hear about a situation like this because there would have been a slew of people thrown in jail for 5-10 until word got out.

    Which leads me to think that Russia is probably taking out their collective frustrations over their new sanctions, the war in Ukraine going poorly for them, and their especially small penises by detaining American citizens. Which is another great reason not to go to Russia.

  5. If past is prologue; Griner will be freed regardless of how unbalanced the prisoner exchange.

    Remember who Obama released in exchange for deserter Bowe Bergdahl?

  6. “That seems unethically harsh to me. Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are important ethical values. She is a young woman whose career and freedom are now in jeopardy, and, by U.S. cultural standards, the price she is facing for a series or reckless, arrogant mistakes in judgment seems excessive.”

    Is it? Well, it is Russia, not Wisconsin.

    In my last year at college, I did a semester abroad in Mexico. We attendees were required to take an orientation on Mexican culture (cool class), history (very intriguing), language (which is different from Castilian taught at the university), customs and manners (“Semana Santa” and carnival, etc.), and yes, Mexican law. The first thing the professor declared at the beginning of each class period was, “You are going to Mexico, a foreign country and will be living under THEIR laws, not your laws. You will have access to the consulate and certain rights as US citizens, but under no circumstances should you think that you are entitled to a lawyer, your Miranda warnings, your one fee phone call, bonding our while awaiting trial, and a speedy trial. You are presumed guilty under Mexican criminal laws and you must prove your innocence. Remember that. One or more of you invariably will go to that beach party, which will be raided by the police, and unless you have a good of cash on hand, expect to spend a long time in jail waiting to see someone from the consulate. Got it?”

    Guess what happened? That idiot party boy got arrested for smoking pot at a party and sat in a Mexican jail for a long time before “arrangements” could be made to secure his release.

    Yeah, nine years sounds like a long prison sentence for pot-laced vapes, right? But, it’s a sentence in line with other sentences under RUSSIAN law, not US law.

    But, really, what do we expect? Russia invades Ukraine, Biden and Harris call Putin Satan incarnate, sanction his citizens (and ours) out the wazoo, and we expect Vlad is gonna say, “Eh, Brittney made a boo boo, so she can go home”? Putin is leveraging her “plight” for his own benefit and Russia will win this battle. Griner is merely a pawn in this geopolitical game.

    Griner will not spend a whole lot more time in Russian jail. Biden will make a deal with Russia, they will get their arms dealer and we will get our basketball player and possibly one other fellow in jail for doing something violative of Russian law.


  7. I don’t remember the same level of effort from the US government when Amanda Knox was railroaded by Italian courts. Whether that is right or wrong politically is a debatable question, but there is no way the current administration ends up looking good by getting involved in this.

  8. How many times does this have to happen? How many anti-American tourists have visited autocratic countries, intentionally violated their laws, and then are shocked when the countries act just like the mean Americans have been saying they will act?

    Now, this is perfectly consisted with leftist arrogance. She hates America, so going to an antagonistic country for obvious anti-American PR is OK. She wants to use cannabis, and she is a good leftist, so her desires overrule the backwards laws of the country she is going to. This isn’t hypocrisy, you could see it in leftist tolerance for Muslim honor killings in the US. You can even see it in leftist faculty at Southern universities. A professor at a school I was going to was sued for ‘alienation of affection’ by his wife during the divorce proceedings because he had been sleeping with students (and awarding them scholarships for their troubles). The university tried to fire him when they found out this was going on in his office. The English faculty protested that effort, claiming the local laws were ‘archaic’ and ‘puritanical’ and that they should only apply to local natives, not people with advanced degrees from Northeastern universities. They put this in writing. They really think that laws are just for little people. Sadly, they have a multitude of examples that prove them right (just look at Nancy Pelosi’s husband).

    I feel sorry for a lot of people in prison. There is a man on death row who was abused by his drug-addicted parents as a child, suffering drug exposure, overdoses, and concussions from physical abuse. However, he DID murder a person, so I can’t say I think he should be released from prison. Nine years in a Russian prison is a terrible thing, but she is in this mess because she didn’t think the laws applied to her. So, that’s rough, but we should’t do anything about it. This is Russian law, she broke it intentionally, she may have been targeted, but she wasn’t treated unfairly according to Russian standards. Given the way the J6 protesters have been treated compared to the BLM rioters, the Kavanaugh confirmation protesters, or the recent Supreme Court protesters, I don’t think our government can credibly argue the targeting complaint. Most of all, I don’t want foreigners coming to the US, violating our laws, and using this as justification for it.

  9. No empathy. None. Not for anyone, regardless of station, who willfully, naively, arrogantly, stupidly, flagrantly, pick your adverb, travels to another country not knowing the laws and then cries foul. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. And I say this having traveled to the Far East, the Mid East, eastern block countries and in between. No empathy.

  10. Now that we know the full extent of the mess Griner has gotten herself into, just how sympathetic should we be?

    Well, let’s see. First of all, the facts:

    1. She broke Russian law, and did so (regardless of what she claims) with either a callous disregard for that law or abject basic travel incompetence. Either case is profoundly and unarguably unethical.

    2. The Russian justice system charged and sentenced her to less than the maximum term for the offense for which she admitted guilt.

    Those are the facts, and they are, in my view, indisputable.

    Now we in the United States find a 9-year sentence for possession of cannabis in small amounts absurd and indeed, I think it is. In a democratic society, such a harsh sentence would be truly absurd. In a totalitarian one, it may seem absurd to us, but alas — totalitarian!

    So was justice done? Perhaps, by the Russian definition. More likely the judge was instructed to give her a long sentence in order to enhance her value as a bargaining chip — again, because totalitarian! The USA has already telegraphed their weakness on this matter in no uncertain terms, and considering the Julie Principle, we could hardly expect Russia not to take advantage of this fact.

    So circling back to the original question: Is Brittney Griner owed sympathy? For my part, yes, at least to some degree. She is clearly being used as a pawn in an international drama, and that is never ethical nor fair to the person so employed. However, I must temper that sympathy with my disdain for her incompetence and/or arrogance that created this situation. Whenever I travel to a foreign destination known to have strict laws against some things that are tolerated here (like Saudi Arabia, where I have been tens of times), I take special care to ensure that I’m not carrying things that could run afoul of their laws. That seems common sense to me, and probably to 98.5% of the people in America.

    But not to Griner, apparently, because she’s an entitled celebrity who, by her actions, thinks that she is a law unto herself. Russia has, in that respect, performed an ethical duty by discharging their own laws and proving to her and others like her that she can’t ignore laws she doesn’t like in other countries even if America might look the other way because of who she is.

    So my sympathy for her is greatly reduced by her clearly unethical self-entitlement and attempt to take advantage of her status as a celebrity to get away with things other Russian visitors could not. But I am sympathetic to her plight, and hope she will be shown the compassion she has refused to show the United States and many of its citizens by her actions in her own country.

  11. Wasn’t a soldier imprisoned in Mexico for years after he made a mistake in the traffic lanes at the border and wound up on the Mexican side with a rifle that was legal in the states. The soldier advised the Mexican authorities he had the rifle and was merely trying to get back to the US and had no intention of entering Mexico. The Obama administration did nothing in that case so why should Griner be any more worthy.

    • Addendum: The soldier was Sgt. Andrew Tomoorisi(sp?) and was held 101 days with no trial. He enter at SanYisdro Ca. John Kerry raised the issue but nothing much was said by the Obama administration.

      • As one nears the border in Nogales, AZ, there is a large sign telling anyone who can read not to bring guns or ammo into Mexico.

  12. I guess the question is what exactly am I sposta feel sympatric for?

    The sentencing is excessive, sure so maybe that.
    Her situation? She largely brought that on herself.
    Her being there? She didn’t have to go. She was told not to go.
    Money? She didn’t need the money (Most likely)?

    I don’t take pleasure in her suffering, but I’m not sure why I should care about it when the whole thing could have been avoided if she wasn’t so full of herself. So maybe for that I can show sympathy. Hubris is a struggle for a lot of people.

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