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OPINION | GREG HARTON: The debate over deal for Griner’s release complex yet simple

by Greg Harton | December 11, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

That Brittney Griner was released from prison in Russia is news that should to be universally celebrated here in the United States. The U.S. government did what the U.S. government ought to do -- look out for Americans wrongly held in foreign nations.

That the actions taken to secure her release sparked controversy isn't the least bit surprising, though. The circumstances of her arrest and imprisonment in Russia's system of ... justice? ... is like a stew, with so many ingredients just about everyone who samples it can find something to love and to dislike.

Griner was arrested in February in Moscow after she arrived from New York City. In her luggage, Russian authorities found vaping cartridges that contained cannabis oil. Back home in the U.S., she has a medical note from a physician recommending the use of medical cannabis to treat pain. The Russkies apparently have little appreciation for a note from a U.S. doctor.

In August, she was sentence to nine years in a Russian prison.

Griner is nothing if not high profile. Through biology, skill and personal choices, she's a member of so many sub-groups in American culture it's almost hard to keep up.

In no particular order, she's:

• A 6-foot, 9-inch player for other Phoenix Mercury in the Women's National Basketball Association. She's a superstar in that league, an eight-time all-star who helped her team win a WNBA championship while a record for points scored/shots blocked.

• A two-time gold medalist representing the United States in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

• A woman.

• An African-American.

• A lesbian who publicly revealed her sexuality in a 2013 interview with (Sports Illustrated), who married a fellow WNBA player in 2015, divorced her in 2016 after an incident of domestic violence, then married her current wife in 2019.

• A controversial figure who, among others, urged the WNBA to stop playing the U.S. National Anthem before games and suggested the anthem should not be played at sporting events at all. Her stance was related to the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, by police officers in Kentucky, which Griner and others were protesting.

• A user of marijuana.

She's both famous and infamous, depending on the perspective of many people who have gotten to know her only because of the attention arising from her Russian imprisonment and the international drama it sparked. There are some who appear to believe Griner's protest via the National Anthem disqualifies her from the nation's best efforts toward her released. I totally disagree with her stance, but her expressions about it don't disqualify her from her country's protection.

Juxtapose her circumstance with Russia's imprisonment of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was dismissed from the military for bad conduct, since 2018 on espionage charges. Many hoped any deal for a prisoner exchange would bring home Whelan and Griner. Whelan, 52, remains in Russia serving a 16-year sentence, though he and U.S. officials deny he was a spy.

It's no wonder the U.S. trade of a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for Griner, and only Griner, sparked criticism. Arkansas' U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton declared Bout's release means "it's open season on taking Americans prisoners." And some conservatives felt -- but had no proof -- that Griner's sub-group identities gave her favored status in a Democratic administration's push for a prisoner swap.

It's worth noting that Whelan's family declined to make such claims. David Whelan expressed disappointment on behalf of his family that his brother would not be coming home, but said they did not begrudge Griner her freedom. Still, they said it's clear the U.S. government -- Biden's administration -- needs to be more assertive in its efforts to bring Paul Whelan home.

There's no question Americans and their elected representatives engage in a lot of "identity politics." And it's certainly relevant for Americans to discuss and debate what criteria have been or ought to be used in evaluating whether a prisoner swap, like any treaty or agreement between nations, favors one more than the other.

There's one status that qualifies Griner for the most aggressive action her government can pursue in seeking her release from a nation antagonistic to U.S. values: She's an American. Case closed.

As David Whelan said, "Anytime an American comes home, it's wonderful news."

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