Former Baylor University basketball superstar Brittney Griner has been released from captivity in Russia in a prisoner swap involving a Russian arms dealer, President Joe Biden announced Dec. 8.
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along,” Biden said in a White House video in which he was flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
“I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,” Cherelle Griner said. “Today is just a happy day for me and my family, so I’m going to smile right now.”
For the first time in the 10-month ordeal, Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone and Vice President and Director of Athletics Mack B. Rhoades issued a joint statement: “Brittney Griner is a member of our Baylor family, and we are extremely grateful that she is on her way back home to the United States. We praise God this day has finally come. Our hearts go out to Brittney and her family as they have endured months of separation, and we continue to pray as she recovers from this incredibly challenging time.”
Previously, Baylor’s administration had been noticeably silent about Griner’s plight, with head women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen being the only school official addressing the situation. Collen immediately took to Instagram Thursday morning to declare, “This is the best kind of news to wake up to!!!”
Griner was arrested in Russia in February for possession of a small amount of marijuana and was serving a nine-year sentence in a penal colony at the time of her release. Her arrest came just before Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Twitter was ablaze with critical remarks from conservatives opposed to her release, and with adulation from celebrities and politicians such as Vice President Harris, former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and former President Barak Obama.
The critical side was illustrated by a tweet from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: “Another reason to impeach Biden. The President of the United States traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a U.S. Marine in Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player. How many people will Viktor Bout now kill bc Biden set him free?”
Former President Donald Trump called Griner someone who “openly hates our country” and called her release a “stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment.”
Many other conservative leaders — both in politics and evangelical Christianity — simply did not acknowledge the situation. Some of the criticism and silence was driven by a false equivalence that Paul Whelan — whom Russia was unwilling to negotiate over — is more deserving of release than Griner.
On the other hand, former NFL and Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffen III tweeted support for the WNBA star: “Celebrate Brittney Griner coming home to her family and now let’s get Marine Paul Whelan home too.”
Baylor’s statement expressed similar concern. “While we celebrate Brittney’s release, our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to fellow American Paul Whelan and his family, as well as all Americans unjustly imprisoned overseas — that they will be freed and can return home safely and promptly.”
Whelan is a former U.S. Marine detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. The government of Vladimir Putin has been especially resistant to his release, although Biden said he is continuing to pursue the American’s freedom.
Cherelle Griner said she and Brittney share that determination. “BG’s not here to say this but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Whelan’s family praised the White House for brokering Griner’s release. “There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed & for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, & to make the deal that was possible.”
The joyous development forced University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, to shift the focus of a scheduled Dec. 19 vigil to pray for Griner’s release, said Craig Nash, a member of the congregation.
“It was originally called ‘A Vigil of Hope for the Safety and Return of Brittney Griner.’ We are now calling it a ‘Service of Celebration for the Return of Brittney Griner’ and ‘A Vigil of Hope for the safety and return of Paul Whelan and other Prisoners during this holiday season,” he said.
“I am especially happy for her wife and the rest of her family, who has received the best Christmas present they could have asked for. Her unjust detainment shined a light on the conditions of prisoners around the world, and I hope her release will cause us to advocate for the release of others,” added Nash, who is a graduate of Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Griner was reportedly in good spirits after her release, Biden said. “She’s relieved to finally be heading home and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life experience to needless trauma, and she deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”
Dear Baylor, how long will you ignore Brittney Griner’s plight? | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Why aren’t we defending Brittney Griner? | Opinion by Rodney Kennedy