Two months after arrest, Brittney Griner’s case still surrounded in mystery

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury looks on during the game against the Las Vegas Aces during Game Five of the 2021 WNBA Semifinals.
Getty Images
4 Comments

WASHINGTON (AP) — For another person in another country at another time, the case might have been a minor matter: an American citizen detained at an airport for allegedly possessing a cannabis derivative legal in much of the world.

But the circumstances for Brittney Griner couldn’t have been worse.

Griner, a WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in Russia, where the offense can mean years in prison, and at a moment when tensions with the U.S. were rising to their highest point in decades. She is a prominent gay, Black woman facing trial in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community and the country’s nationalist zeal has raised concerns about how she will be treated.

“There are many countries around the world where you do not want to get in trouble, and Russia is one of them,” said Clarence Lusane, a Howard University political science professor who specializes in criminal justice and drug policy.

As extraordinary as her circumstances are, the details surrounding Griner’s case remain a mystery as a crucial court date approaches next month. Russian prosecutors have offered little clarity and the U.S. government has made only measured statements. Griner’s legal team has declined to speak out about the case as it works behind the scenes.

Griner is easily the most prominent American citizen known to be jailed by a foreign government, but in many ways her case isn’t unusual. Americans are frequently arrested overseas on drug and other charges and U.S. authorities are limited about what they can say or the help they can offer. The State Department generally can’t do much to help beyond consular visits and helping the American get an attorney. It also can’t say much unless the person arrested waives privacy rights, which Griner hasn’t fully done.

In some cases, U.S. officials do speak out loudly when they’re convinced an American has been wrongly detained. But Griner’s case is barely two months old and officials have yet to make that determination. A State Department office that works to free American hostages and unjust detainees is not known to be involved.

The Phoenix Mercury star was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-February after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis — accusations that could carry up to 10 years in prison, though some experts predict she’d get much less if convicted. She was returning to the country after the Russian League, in which she also plays, was taking a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.

U.S. officials have said they are tracking the case but have not spoken extensively about it, in part because Griner has not signed a full Privacy Act Waiver. The statements so far have been careful and restrained, focused on ensuring she has access to U.S. consular affairs officials — she had a meeting last month — rather than explicitly demanding her immediate release.

There’s little the U.S. government can do diplomatically to end a criminal prosecution in another country, particularly in the early days of a case. Any deal that would require concessions by the U.S. would seem a nonstarter, especially with Russia at war with Ukraine and the U.S. coordinating actions involving Russia with Western allies.

“It’s a trial lawyer’s nightmare since you have to conduct a trial when the larger political environment is negative,” said William Butler, a Russian law expert and professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.

The State Department has been “doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” spokesman Ned Price said last month. Last week, he said the U.S. was in frequent contact with her legal team and “broader network.”

That’s a more restrained posture than the Biden administration has taken with two other Americans jailed in Russia — Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus, and Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran sentenced to nine years on charges that he assaulted a police officer in Moscow as he was being driven to a police station after a night of heavy drinking.

The State Department has pressed Russia for their release. In contrast to Griner’s case, it has described both as unjustly detained.

Race and gender issues are front and center in the Griner case.

Lusane, the Howard University professor, said under Vladimir Putin “there’s been a hyper nationalism in Russia, so basically anyone who’s not considered Slavic is considered an outsider and a potential threat.”

He added, “She fits into that category.”

On the other hand, he said, there could also be an opening for Putin to build “an inroad into the African American community” by ordering her released as a humanitarian gesture.

Some Griner supporters, including Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, have maintained that her case would be getting more attention if she weren’t a Black woman.

The president of the WNBA players’ association, Nneka Ogwumike, said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Griner was in Russia because WNBA players don’t earn enough in the U.S.

“She’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity,” Ogwumike said.

Many of Griner’s fellow WNBA players have remained circumspect for fear of antagonizing the situation, though her coach and some of her teammates have made clear in interviews that the 6-foot-9 center is on their minds.

“I spent 10 years there, so I know the way things work,” Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi said of Russia. “It’s delicate.”

Griner recently had her detention extended to May 19. More information about her case may emerge then. But regardless of the factual allegations against her in court, it’s impossible to divorce the legal case from the broader political implications.

“Russians are great chess players,” said Peter Maggs, a research professor and expert in Russian law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “The more pawns you have, the greater your chance of eventual victory. And since things are not going their way, obviously, in Ukraine, any pawns they have they want to hold on to.”

MORE FROM ONHER TURF: PHF chairman addresses commissioner search, Digit Murphy hiring, expansion, more

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
Getty Images
0 Comments

Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Getty Images
0 Comments

It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”