After news of Alexei Navalny's death, it's impossible not to think of Brittney Griner

In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series "29 Black Stories in 29 Days." We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This is the fourth installment of the series.

Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, died in an Arctic penal colony, the Russian prison service stated. When hearing this news another person immediately came to mind: Brittney Griner.

Griner was released from a Russian penal colony on Dec. 8 after being held by the Russians for 10 months. The two-time Olympian was originally detained at a Moscow airport after officials discovered vape cartridges and hash oil in her luggage. Russia has some of the most severe drug laws in the world though the detaining of Griner was likely less about the drug laws and more about something else. More on that in a moment.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. She appealed and lost and thus her odyssey began ending only after a prisoner swap involving arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The situations between Navalny and Griner are of course different. Navalny is dead because he was a Putin critic and he will be remembered as one of the greatest freedom fighters of our time.

President Joe Biden, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking to WNBA star Brittney Griner.
President Joe Biden, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking to WNBA star Brittney Griner.

But in some ways the situations are also similar. I can't help but think how easily Griner could have met Navalny's fate. Either because of the brutal conditions or poor medical care or for some more nefarious reasons.

Navalny represented the greatest of humanity. He was attacked and imprisoned because of the ideals he represented.

The true reason Griner was imprisoned wasn't because of the drug paraphernalia. No one really believes that. She was imprisoned because she was an openly gay Black American woman. She stands for everything Putin (and many white nationalists) despise.

In many ways, people like Griner represent the future. A future where people are free to openly be whatever they want. All participating in a multi-cultural, democratic world. This is a future that authoritarians don't want.

It's also important to note that Griner has also been extremely supportive of the Americans and others still being unjustly held in Russian prisons. Not long after her release, Griner urged her fans to write Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned. Whelan is a former Marine who traveled to Moscow in 2018 for a wedding. He was arrested on espionage charges that American officials say are false.

"There remain too many families with loved ones wrongfully detained," she wrote on Instagram in December of 2022. "Those families stood alongside you and all who supported the WeAreBG Campaign to bring me home and it's our turn to support them. I hope you'll join me in writing to Paul Whelan and continuing to advocate for other Americans to be rescued and returned to their families."

Hopefully, Whelan will be home soon as well.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Alexei Navalny death, it's hard not to think of Brittney Griner