Brittney Griner’s Modern-Day Odyssey

Published: May 27, 2022  |  

Academic Director of Graduate Programs in New York

Homer’s epic story of the Odyssey depicts the plight of the legendary Odysseus and his tumultuous return home from the Trojan war. Odysseus’ epic story is unnervingly similar to the modern-day saga faced by WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, who is navigating a myriad of twists and turns while at the mercy of a perilous version of Murphy’s Law within the Russian legal system. Griner was detained on February 17th after her flight from New York City to Moscow by Russian Customs Officials at Sheremetyevo Airport, accused of carrying cannabis vape oil in her luggage. Griner was set to join UMMC Ekaterinburg as a professional player in the off-season from the WNBA: her detainment has been a complicated story that rivals Homer’s poem.

The Significance of Ten Years

As the 26th season of the WNBA tipped off on May 6th, Brittney Griner remained in detainment in Russia. The significance of 10 years is evident as Griner is currently unable to play her 10th season as a professional in the Women’s National Basketball Association. Griner faces smuggling drug charges, which could lead to up to 10 years in prison. This is a major setback for Griner, as she is a champion in the truest sense of the term, having been a McDonald’s All-American (2009), NCAA Champion at Baylor (2012), WNBA Champion (2014), and a member of multiple Olympic gold medal-winning Team USA Women’s Basketball teams (2016 & 2020). A native of Houston Texas, Griner is 6 foot 9 inches tall and is one of the most recognizable faces in the global sport of basketball.

The significance of ten years is also central to the story of Odysseus, who spent 10 long years on his return trip from the Trojan war. His voyage from Troy (modern day Turkey) back to his home of Ithaca (modern day Greece) should have taken weeks, but ultimately a decade passed before he finally returned home to his wife Penelope. During this ordeal, Odysseus battled the wrath of the seas, mythical creatures, and the vices of his crew as he persevered. As the champion and King of Ithaca, Odysseus’s perseverance was a major determinant of his eventual return home.

War is Bloodshed Without Politics and Politics is War Without Bloodshed 

The timing of Griner’s detainment coincides with the Russian invasion in Ukraine, which occurred shortly after her detainment. May 19th was slated as the day that Brittney Griner’s court trial would begin until it wasn’t—as her pretrial detention was extended for another month. Borrowing Mao Zedong’s quote, “war is bloodshed without politics and politics is war without bloodshed,” we come to an additional layer of global intrigue to this story, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated Britney Griner’s hope for due process. Griner’s case lies at the intersection of sports, criminal law, and politics. On May 3rd, the Biden Administration declared that Brittney Griner has been “wrongfully detained in Russia.” There is belief that this could be a turning point in Griner’s favor, as lines of communication and diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia are open, and recently led to Marine Veteran Trevor Reed being released on a prisoner exchange from Russia on April 27th. 

The faith and perseverance of Brittney Griner during this time parallels the mental strength and ingenuity exhibited by Odysseus during his journey back to Ithaca. Both have had to overcome tremendous odds and remain steadfast in their belief that a resolution is near.

Love Conquers All

Similar to Odysseus’ Penelope, the role of the protagonist’s dutiful spouse is played in Britney Griner’s story by her wife Cherelle. The theme of “love conquers all” is exemplified by Cherelle—who recently graduated from North Carolina Central University’s Law School—leading the charge in advocating for her partner’s release. In addition to creating the social media hashtag #BG42 and partnering with the NBA to have “BG42” on the 12 home courts for league play. Cherelle Griner has had to fasttrack her legal learning curve, as she is entrenched in her spouse’s international predicament and had to secure Russia-based legal representation for her. Fortunately, the WNBA has agreed to support the Griner family by paying Brittney’s 2022 season salary of $227,900.

Ultimately, it took Odysseus 10 years to return to his family in Ithaca. For Brittney Griner, a drug-smuggling conviction would lead to a harsh penalty of up to 10 years. The possibility of lesser charges such as drug possession could potentially lead to probation, no jail time, and deportation back to the US. While the war between Russia and Ukraine heavily complicates this situation and has Griner stuck between a rock and a proverbial hard place, I am hopeful she will be able to make it home faster in comparison to Odysseus.

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