Brittney Griner visited in Russian prison by U.S. Embassy officials

US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner.
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WASHINGTON — Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow visited jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday, just weeks after a Russian court rejected her appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug possession.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet that the American representatives “saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”

Price said the Biden administration is continuing to press for the immediate release of Griner and Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are bogus, and “fair treatment for every detained American.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances” and that the administration was working “to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions” of Griner and Whelan.”

Griner was was convicted in August after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Her arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At that time, Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.

She admitted at her trial to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her lawyers have called the punishment excessive.

The United States regards Griner and Whelan as wrongful detainees and has been trying to negotiate with Russia for their release. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the summer that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to try to get both home.

People familiar with the offer have said the U.S. wanted to swap Whelan and Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

There have been no outward signs of progress since then in the negotiations.

Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling with the president to New Mexico that “despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russia through all available channels. This continues to be a top priority.”

Brittney Griner’s appeal rejected by Russian court, 9-year sentence upheld

US basketball player Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing during her trial on charges of drug smuggling, in Khimki, outside Moscow.
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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Tuesday upheld the nine-year prison sentence handed to American basketball star Brittney Griner for drug possession, rejecting her appeal.

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

The Moscow region court ruled Tuesday to uphold the sentence. In the ruling the court stated, however, that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball star will have to serve around eight years in prison.

Griner took part in the Moscow Regional Court hearing via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow where she is imprisoned.

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason.

Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified that she inadvertently packed them in haste and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”

The U.S. and Russia carried out a prisoner swap in April. Moscow released U.S. Marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has pushed for the release of other Russians in U.S. custody.

One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the U.S. in August.

Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hoped to be part of a possible swap.

The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. He was sentenced in 2017 to 27 years in prison on charges from a hacking and credit card fraud scheme.

Yates report takeaways extend beyond NWSL: ‘Guardrails’ are essential for women’s pro sports

Soccer players from the U.S. and England pose for a photo with a "protect the players" banner
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U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were so focused on putting and keeping players on the field that protecting those players fell by the wayside.

That was one of the key takeaways from the U.S. Soccer-commissioned report released last week. Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm King & Spalding found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct are systemic in women’s soccer and that league’s lack of basic workplace protections created an environment in which abuse could thrive.

“They did not institute the most basic of workplace protections,” the report explains. “For most of the League’s history, there was no anti-harassment policy, no anti-retaliation policy, and no anti-fraternization policy. Nor were there independent reporting lines, coaching codes of conduct, or any guidelines regarding the due diligence necessary to hire a coach. Most teams did not have human resource functions, and if they did, some teams did not believe those services were available to players.”

The report continues: “Without basic protections in place, what followed, almost inevitably, was the systemic abuse of players.”

It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, the start of the NWSL’s ninth season, that the league published its first anti-harassment policy. And that was only after 240 players — organized by Alex Morgan — sent then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird a letter demanding workplace protections and a way to report complaints. (The current policy can be found here.)

While the Yates report focused on the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, its takeaways are broadly applicable to other leagues.

“We hope that other leagues, other teams, other Federations look inward. The whole goal of this is so that no one else suffers from the abuse that so many players in this league have faced,” said USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “If that takes people (being) introspective and creating policies and anti-harassment policies — things that we were very late doing — no better time to start than right now.”

Following publication of the Yates report, On Her Turf surveyed women’s professional sports leagues that compete in the U.S. about whether they have an active anti-harassment policy in place. Here is a summary of the survey:

  • WNBA players and employees are covered by a “Respect in the Workplace Policy.” The league mandates yearly training and provides an anonymous workplace hotline for reporting complaints.
  • In a statement, the LPGA said it “has had anti-harassment policies in place for its players and staff for more than a decade.” Additionally, the organization said it regularly reviews and updates these policies “to provide maximum protection to players and staff.”
  • The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) official rulebook can be found here (the relevant section of the Code of Conduct, which has been in place for over a decade, is on pages 306-310). A spokesperson for the WTA also said that the organization has a department staffed by qualified mental health practitioners that helps “educate and inform players on matters of personal safety and on WTA procedures, resources and support systems for suspected abuse. … Additionally, WTA staff with roles involving close player interaction are provided additional training to help with early identification and support of at-risk players and to guide players to the appropriate athlete assistance team for help.”
  • Athletes Unlimited (AU) — which organizes tournaments in basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and softball — has an anti-harassment policy that can be found here.
  • The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) directed On Her Turf to its ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Policy‘ and confirmed that players are covered by the policy. PHF SVP of Communications Paul Krotz also told On Her Turf that “this area has been prioritized and discussed in internal meetings with players and staff members. The current policy is being reviewed with the intent to launch new and increased resources for the upcoming season.”
  • The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) has a Safe Sport policy that can be found here (page 15).

On Her Turf also reached out to four organizations that are in the process of launching leagues about their plans for player safety policies.

  • The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), a player-led organization that is aiming to launch its own women’s pro hockey league next year, says player safety policies (including an anti-harassment policy) will be implemented from the beginning of their planned league. “Our board has consisted (of) all players from the launch of the PWHPA, and creating a professional, safe environment has been a top priority all along. Every decision made is with a player-first mentality,” PWHPA media consultant Ashley McLellan said in a statement. The PWHPA formed in 2019 after over 200 players stepped away from the ice due to low wages, a lack of healthcare benefits, and poor working conditions.
  • Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF) — which was founded by USA Softball, USSSA, and Smash It Sports — played its first exhibition games this year, but will officially launch in 2023. WPF Commissioner Lauren Chamberlain told On Her Turf that a draft of the league’s anti-harassment policy is currently going through legal review and will be active for the inaugural 2023 season.
  • The USL Super League, a Division II women’s soccer league that is slated to launch in August 2023, plans to have an anti-harassment policy in place ahead of its first season and says it is taking the Yates report into consideration as it finalizes that policy.
  • The Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL), a Division II women’s league with a 2024 launch year, plans to finalize its league-wide anti-harassment policy ahead of its first season and is also pressing individual clubs to have their own policies. “To us, it’s all about creating a safe and supporting environment,” managing director Lynn Berling-Manuel said. “And a safe supportive environment means everyone — players, coaches, front office personnel, the entire organization — there needs to be a clear series of action that will take place when you report a problem.”

Despite billing itself as a professional league, the Yates report found that the NWSL’s lacking infrastructure — from poor training and playing facilities to dangerous living situations — resulted in an environment that was far from professional.

“In the haste to get the League off the ground, the Federation conducted limited financial due diligence on the new league’s prospective owners and did not put in place the infrastructure or planning necessary to support the League over the long haul,” the report says.

“Truth Be Told,” an ESPN E60 on the NWSL that premiered last week, provided additional insight on how the league’s startup mindset and cost-cutting measures — from salaries as low as $6,000 to the use of host families to the absence of a union — led to widespread issues.

“You would have thought that, in launching a business, there were some pretty basic things you could look at: background checks, anti-discrimination policy, an anti-harassment policy, an HR person,” NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke told E60. “(No one was saying) you’re not going to use a trash can to do ice baths. We’re going to give you a bathroom that’s not the woods. We’re not going to provide adequate medical staffing, we’re not going to provide adequate training facilities. It was a severe control of costs without, on the flip side, a plan for how to grow revenue.”

“The standards were low — very low — but we just wanted to play,” USWNT and San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan said of the players’ initial mindset.

“The league was set up hastily, in a way that got it off the ground and gave us a place to play — and I think every player would say that we’re thankful and appreciative for that — but it was also done with absolutely zero guardrails. And that’s just unacceptable,” USWNT and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe told media last week.

Even if NWSL players wanted to speak up, fear of seeing the league collapse kept them silent.

“Players were also repeatedly enlisted in the effort to keep the League afloat by protecting it from scandal and were told to be grateful that they had an opportunity to play professional soccer at all,” the Yates report explains. “The threat of team or league failure was acute and persistent. The NWSL was the third attempt to field a women’s professional league and was established with low capital requirements to ensure the league had eight teams. Many teams seemed to be one bad season away from shuttering. Players reported being told by Federation leadership and certain team owners that the League was not commercially successful enough to warrant further financial investment, and that the only way to ensure the League’s survival was for players to support the League.”

“I think everyone was afraid to ultimately cause the league’s demise,” USWNT and Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury told E60. “We knew it was fragile.”

Conditions in the NWSL have improved in the last year, thanks especially to the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement. But the Yates report recommends U.S. Soccer “strengthen player safety requirements in professional leagues” and consider whether “all owners are financially committed to the NWSL and are providing a professional environment that is safe and respectful of players” — two takeaways key for women’s leagues across the board.

“I think these hostile conditions that are kind of now being unearthed and publicly revealed, but it’s things that we’ve been dealing with for the entirety of our careers,” said USWNT and OL Reign defender Alana Cook. “We have gotten to this point because we have learned how to deal with the difficulties surrounding what we do.”

“We, as women soccer players, have faced a lot, not just in these last two years, but for a very long time,” echoed Sauerbrunn. “You have to enact as much change as you can, while also demanding more from those that have the power to do so.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC