LeBron James is “intentionally stirring the pot” by weighing in on the United States government’s handling of Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia, a legal analyst told Insider.
The WNBA superstar has been held in Russian jail since February, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport under suspicion of traveling with vape cartridges filled with hashish oil in her luggage. She’s since pleaded guilty to large-scale transportation of drugs — a move experts say could help expedite her return home — and now faces up to 10 years in Russian prison.
But on Tuesday, James questioned whether Griner should “even want to go back to America,” given how long the Biden administration has taken to act.
“How could she feel like America has her back?” James asked in a preview of season five, episode five, of “The Shop” after noting she had been detained for more than 110 days.
He later clarified on Twitter that he “wasn’t knocking our beautiful country” in his comments. Instead, he said, he “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!”
As of the initial publication of this article, Griner has been in Russian custody for 146 days, or nearly 5 months.
Legal expert Aron Solomon, who serves as Esquire Digital’s chief legal analyst, suspects that James’ comments were “intentionally hyperbolic to evoke a response” and raise awareness of the case.
“Like him or feel neutral about him, he is the Dean of the basketball world. His words have gravitas,” Solomon told Insider. “I believe part of his statement about why Brittney [Griner] would ever want to come back and how she would feel about America was intentionally hyperbolic to evoke a response. Which it did. Perfectly.”
Solomon then compared the response to Griner’s plight with that of pop star Britney Spears, who endured a years-long legal battle to end her conservatorship and regain control of her own life. He explained that Spears’ case gained considerable attention once high-profile public figures joined the outcry.
The Los Angeles Lakers superstar certainly qualifies as such.
“I do think [James’ comments] will impact the situation,” Solomon said. “Only when the most important celebrities got involved [in Spears’ case] did things really start to move forward to end her conservatorship.”
Russia’s hostile stance against LGBTQ+ people likely exacerbates Griner’s situation
Sources have told Insider that Russian prison is not a pleasant place for anyone but is an especially hostile environment for Americans.
Plus, as Jonathan Franks — a hostage-negotiation expert who helped negotiate for the freedom of Trevor Reed, another American detained by Russia — previously told Insider, a 6-foot-9 Black woman is “kind of rare in Russia.” And given the state’s hostile stance toward LGBTQ people and their lack of legal protections against discrimination, her status as an out lesbian makes her a target for ridicule.
“It’s almost like they’re putting her out there to be guffawed at,” Franks said. “I think that’s shameful and says it all about this regime and their system.”
He added that the US government needed to do “whatever it takes to bring her home,” along with a fellow American detainee, Paul Whelan. “I’ve already explained my particular concern about Brittney as a Black LGBT woman,” he said. “I don’t trust that regime with LGBT people.”
The Biden administration has been in touch with the Russian government to try to help facilitate the WNBA star’s release. President Joe Biden has written a letter to Griner in detainment and has talked to her wife, Cherelle, on the phone.
Sources have repeatedly told Insider the two-time Olympic gold medalist’s best chance of returning stateside anytime soon involves a prisoner exchange with Russia. Several experts explained that an unorthodox two-for-one swap involving Whelan and the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout could be the key to Griner’s freedom.
Even Bout’s sentencing judge — Shira A. Scheindlin, who was a federal judge at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York when she gave Bout a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison — told Insider she didn’t “think it would be wrong to trade him” in exchange for Griner and Whelan.
“I’m not saying he’s an innocent guy, don’t get me wrong,” Scheindlin said, adding that the 11 years Bout had served so far nevertheless represented “a pretty hefty amount of time in a person’s life.”
“The US interest in punishing him has been satisfied, in my opinion,” she said.
As Griner’s fight for freedom wages half a world away, the WNBA is in the middle of its 2022 season. Over the weekend, 22 of the league’s top players traveled to Chicago for this year’s All-Star Game. The superstars vowed to use every tool at their disposal to urge the Biden administration to act — including wearing Griner’s name and number on their jerseys during Sunday’s contest.
“We are the most unified league in the world, and wearing the jerseys was a statement to show that we are BG,” the 2022 WNBA All-Star captain A’ja Wilson said Sunday. “Yes, we have the shirts and the pins, but BG is one of us. She’s our sister.”
“And at the end of the day, we are going to do whatever we can to amplify the platform that we have to make sure that everyone is doing what they need to do to make sure that she gets home safely,” the 2020 league MVP added. “It’s hard. It’s hard for all of us. It’s not easy.”
Added Wilson: “Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about Brittney Griner.”