Brittney Griner comes home in prisoner swap that is both joyful and heartbreaking | Opinion

The most important trade involving an American athlete in history was completed Thursday morning when the U.S. swapped Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer, for Mercury star Brittney Griner, who had been detained by Russia since last February for allegedly possessing vape cartridges that contained cannabis in her luggage.

As with all trades, the merits and wisdom of this one will be debated for weeks, maybe years, to come, especially since it didn’t include Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, which he denies.

Whelan has spent four years in Russian custody. Griner spent just less than 10 months. But the Biden administration said that Bout for Griner was the only deal Russia would consider. Russia regards Whelan as a spy and was never going to couple him with Griner in a swap.

Paul Whelan, shown at a Moscow courtroom in June 2020, has been held in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage charges he and the U.S. government say are false.
Paul Whelan, shown at a Moscow courtroom in June 2020, has been held in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage charges he and the U.S. government say are false.

It was “one or none,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

If that’s true, then the U.S. was smart to make it.

Griner is free and will be home soon. That’s worthy of celebration, but it will be one tinged with sadness and concern.

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Our hearts can be full with the news that Griner is free and also broken that Whelan remains in a Russian prison.

We can be happy that Griner is free while also being concerned that prisoner swaps like this one might encourage corrupt governments to detain more Americans in the hopes of trading them for prisoners or other assets.

Some won’t feel conflicted, however, because Griner, sadly, is a polarizing figure in her home country. She’s Black. She’s gay. She’s outspoken. Two years ago, after Mercury players stayed in the locker room during the National Anthem to honor victims of police brutality and Black Lives Matter, Griner said the National Anthem should not be played before WNBA games.

"I honestly feel we should not play the National Anthem during our season," she said at the time. "I think we should take that much of a stand.

"I don't mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country."

I’ve written about Griner a couple times since her detention, and some of the feedback is predictable.

How does Griner like our country now? Griner put herself in that situation. Griner should have known Russian laws regarding cannabis. Griner can get used to the Russian national anthem.

They were quick to assume Griner was guilty. Quick to believe that being sentenced to a penal colony was a just punishment for allegedly possessing a small amount of cannabis oil. Quick to ignore that part of what makes this country great is that Griner, like the rest of us, has the right to peacefully protest what we think is wrong.

Thousands served, fought and died to establish and preserve that right.

An increasing number of American athletes, including Griner, have found their voices over the last decade. They’ve spoken out about social injustices and helped educate those of us who have listened.

Rarely have those voices been louder than in the months Griner has been detained. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her players spoke about Griner constantly last season. From Diana Taurasi to Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Suns did, too.  From coach Monty Williams to Chris Paul and Devin Booker. “Free BG" and "Bring BG Home" were more than slogans on T-shirts to them.

By voicing fears that Griner would be forgotten, they helped make sure she wasn’t. It’s something they should be proud of, that Arizonans should be proud of.

We can be happy that Griner will soon be home and back with her family while also disappointed that Paul Whelan won't be. Those feelings aren’t mutually exclusive.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Brittney Griner comes home in Russia prisoner swap without Paul Whelan