How much real clout do celebrities have when it comes to international politics?
Especially in the the case WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Griner, who has been in a Russian prison for the past five months and is facing a possible ten more years, has evoked a lot of passionate support from politicians, sports figures, and celebrities (myself included). They want her immediately released and returned home to the United States and they have been very vocal about it in the media.
I’m sure there are those out there who think the government ought to send in a Mission: Impossible squad with latex Putin masks and cool laser gadgets to spring her. The rest of us are looking for more practical solutions. But choosing the best solution has resulted in a lot of online bickering and backlash among Griner’s supporters that has gone viral. Especially between NBA players LeBron James and Enes Kanter Freedom. I’ll get to that later.
Which begs the question: Despite massive celebrity and public outcry on behalf of Brittney Griner, are we helping or hurting her chances for freedom?
Do Celebrities Have Political Clout Outside the US?
Griner has had far-reaching support. A letter to the White House in June from 44 organizations — including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Urban League — requested that President Biden negotiate Griner's release. That same week, the House passed a resolution calling on the Russian government to immediately release Griner and supporting U.S. government efforts to secure her release.
The State Department has declared her “wrongfully detained,” which legally makes her case the responsibility of the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs. Everyone in the government from President Biden on down assures us that they are working diligently for her release. We have no reason to doubt them.
Griner also has many celebrity supporters calling for her release, including LeBron James, Kim Kardashian, Amy Schumer, Joe Rogan, Kerry Washington, and others. James shared a Change.org petition (“Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the U . S.”), explaining, “It is imperative that the U.S. Government immediately address this human rights issue and do whatever is necessary to return Brittney home.”
Joe Rogan commented on his podcast, “It’s over nothing. It’s like she’s the clearest form of political prisoner.”
That’s a lot of important people and organizations on her side. Which brings up two important questions: Is this the best approach? Why just Griner?
Is This the Best Approach?
I agree that Griner’s arrest was politically motivated. She was arrested February 17, 2022, one week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia wanted a bargaining chip because they knew which side we would fall on and the amount of pressure the U.S. would bring to the bear against them during the war. Now they had a celebrity to dangle.
So, are celebrities doing the right thing in making loud public demands for our government to negotiate Griner’s release?
If a social rights activist is being imprisoned in Selma for protesting or there’s a shady police shooting of an unarmed Black person in New York, then such celebrity calls to action might be effective. That’s because we live in a country where those in power need votes and sometimes shining a spotlight on them can bring pressure. But when we demand our country negotiate Griner’s release right now regardless of the cost, that only strengthens Russia’s negotiating position. Imagine being in a room negotiating with someone while outside the people you represent are shouting, “Give them whatever they want!”
The U.S. has negotiated prisoner releases from Russia for many years, recently getting U.S. citizen Trevor Reed released in a prisoner exchange after three years in a Russian prison for what he claims were bogus charges of endangering the the "life and health" of Russian police officers in an altercation. He faced nine years in prison. Unless I see evidence that government negotiators aren’t already doing their job, I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to do it better—or give them a timeline.
All of Griner’s supporters—myself included—should be working together to bring pressure on Russia rather than on the U.S., because by trying to pressure the U.S., we might actually be postponing Griner’s release while our people deal with Russia’s outrageous demands.
Why Stop at Griner?
A question that troubles many is why there is so much sudden celebrity support for Griner when Trevor Reed had been imprisoned in Russia for three years and Paul Whelan, who was convicted of spying and sentenced to 16 years, is still incarcerated after four years. Most Americans haven’t even heard of these men, let alone signed a petition to free them or worn a pin with their initials. Ashamedly, I am among those who didn’t do anything.
Each year about 3,000 Americans are arrested abroad, with about 100 of them, according to The Wall Street Journal, “hostages of rogue states and terrorist groups.” But they are anonymous sacrifices, helpless because they are not celebrities.
Maybe it’s true that Brittney Griner brought our attention to the problem because she’s famous, but that doesn’t mean the groups supporting her are wrong in doing so. It means that we have to broaden our appeal to include other wrongfully imprisoned non-celebrities. We need to demand Paul Whelan’s release with as much gusto and vigor as we do Griner’s.
Who’s Right?: LeBron James’ Comment in Support of Griner Brings Backlash from Enes Kanter Freedom and former MLB Player Curt Shilling
In a trailer for his HBO Max show The Shop, LeBron says about Griner: “Now, how can she feel like America has her back? I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even wanna go back to America?’”
NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom took offense and tweeted: “You are free to leave buddy or you can even volunteer for an exchange for her.” A lot of fans agreed with Freedom’s assessment, prompting James to clarify in a tweet: “My comments on 'The Shop' regarding Brittney Griner wasn’t knocking our beautiful country. I was simply saying how she’s probably feeling emotionally along with so many other emotions, thoughts, etc inside that cage she’s been in for over 100+ days! Long story short #BringHerHome”
My comments on “The Shop” regarding Brittney Griner wasn’t knocking our beautiful country. I was simply saying how she’s probably feeling emotionally along with so many other emotions, thoughts, etc inside that cage she’s been in for over 100+ days! Long story short #BringHerHome— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 13, 2022
Afterward, James was accused of backpedaling his original comments.
I disagree. James was being sincere.
I wish people could understand what it’s like to have every word you ever speak or write analyzed. It’s like putting a t-shirt through the wash until it disintegrates into a soggy ball of lint. Sometimes anything you say can be interpreted to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. One size fits all biases.
In this case, James is right. After five months in a Russian prison, Griner may very well feel abandoned. Most people would. You may know in your brain the U.S. is working furiously behind the scenes on your behalf, but it wouldn’t feel that way. Add to that being Black, a woman, and non-binary—all groups under attack by the U.S. Supreme Court and dozens of Republican-led states—and you may sit in your cell worrying you’re not a priority back home.
James has demonstrated his unwavering commitment to community and country too many times to have it questioned over this. He has done as much, if not more, than most to bring awareness and gather support for Griner, and for that should be praised.
Former baseball player Curt Shilling also chimed in with his aggrivated tweet: “I know this may seem like a stretch. But something like 300 million people understand 'OBEY THE FUCKING LAW', why is that such a challenge? And why on earth should she NOT pay the penalty for breaking another country's laws?”
While it’s true that most of those arrested did commit a local crime, the severity of the punishment far exceeds the crime. (I’m not sure why Shilling is so quick to convict her before even the Russian court has. Does he say the same thing about Reed and Whalen’s convictions because you can’t condemn her without condemning them.) The fact is that in many cases the arrest of American citizens is prompted by a desire on behalf of that government to get something from the U.S. Though we might lament Griner’s choice to pack hashish oil in her suitcase (even though her attorneys have presented a doctor’s note recommending she use cannabis to treat pain, the goal here is to bring about justice, not reward Russia for holding her hostage with the threat of ten years in prison for a minor offense.
Everyone supporting Brittney Griner has their hearts in the right place. Good people, one and all. But heart alone isn’t effective in bringing about her release, and by publicly pressuring the U.S. government, we may be inadvertently delaying her release.
Instead, let us gather celebrities, politicians, and people internationally to put pressure on Russia. In addition, let’s make this appeal for Griner include other Americans who are imprisoned as political pawns and call for their release as well to prove it’s not just celebrities that we value.