For Brittney Griner, sport was both a blessing and a curse.

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By mid-summer, three and a half years had passed since Russian intelligence agents, working for the latest version of the country’s infamous KGB, stormed into American Paul Whelan’s hotel room in Moscow, pinned him to the floor and accused him of spying. . for which the Russian legal system eventually sentenced him to 16 years in a Mordovian gulag. Yet his story was little told. And when it did, after checking a database of more than 8,000 news sources, including magazines, websites, and blogs, I found that his and his family’s pleas for help were heard without much response, and rarely more than 100 reports a day. month to deliver. That’s despite desperate public protests like the one outside the White House in May.

But in July, Whelan’s plight suddenly gained public attention. Factiva, that news database, had nearly 3,000 hits to its name that month alone. And then more than 3,000 in August. And more than 2,500 since then.

Why the increase? The cultural permeation of sport.

In July, basketball superstar Brittney Griner appeared in court for the first time since she was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow in February. Authorities there said an examination of her luggage revealed two vape cartridges containing traces of cannabis or marijuana oil. Marijuana is illegal in Russia, recreationally and medicinally.

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Whether Griner accidentally, as she claimed, or deliberately brought what Russia considers contraband into his country is now a moot point. That includes in case she’s framed in a dubious judicial system of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, which invaded US-allied Ukraine a week after Griner’s arrival. It also doesn’t matter what the relaxation laws are for marijuana in Griner’s native United States, where cannabis activists protested outside the Russian embassy on Thursday.

The fact is that she was imprisoned on charges of drug smuggling in Russia, awaiting a summer trial, in which she was sentenced to more than nine years in a penal colony believed to be just as terrifying as the one where Whelan is imprisoned.

And since then, usually described as a former Marine, Whelan has been associated with Griner, who is now the most famous American political prisoner abroad for her iconic status in basketball, having won gold medals from two Olympic Games – Rio and Tokyo – and a EuroLeague Championship she won with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League. Ironically, she was arrested when she returned to play in the RPL for what her wife said was one last Russian season.

“I intend to raise an issue that is a top priority for us,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said at an upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart in late July, “the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongly detained and should be allowed to come home.”

That Whelan’s imprisonment is now being recalled as a result of Griner’s predicament, and that Griner is the most famous of perhaps 60 Americans held or incarcerated abroad under questionable conditions, is a perverse reminder of the appeal of sport. As sports sociologists M. Patrick Cottrell and Travis Nelson noted in a 2010 article in the “European Journal of International Relations” about the role of sport as a platform for political opportunity unlike any other in the global theater, sport “…accessible and high profile…getting regular and global media attention” and “can increase the potential availability of influential allies and supporters…to draw more attention to their cause and forge new alliances.”

The question is whether this application of sports fame will be a gift to Griner — and, in turn, Whelan and others — as much as a curse for the basketball star so far.

I’m not going to pretend — like many in sports, the media, fans and executives — have any knowledge of what the White House is, or should be like, to incarcerate citizens like Griner and Whelan abroad. (A television show with the title of that phrase has turned such trouble into entertainment.) I’m not going to speculate whether an athletic star of Griner’s stature from a prominent men’s sport would have been home after being the victim of the same thing.

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After all, like Whelan, Griner is now a political prisoner. We can say this with certainty given reports that both could only be released in exchange for notorious convicts linked to Putin’s regime and held in US facilities. For those who believe that if Griner were an NBA Finals MVP or Super Bowl-winning quarterback she would now be back on American soil, such stardom could make her release and Whelan’s more difficult. Such notoriety could require an even greater number of mobsters than those US negotiators would offer for her and Whelan’s release, which would include Viktor Bout, an international Russian arms dealer.

Bolt is possibly more personally responsible than anyone on earth in the past quarter-century for destabilizing sub-Saharan Africa, including fueling documented genocide and massacres in countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone. In that sense, the increased credibility attributed to a man’s sport superstar could, from a national security standpoint, make the merging of a trade package with Russia even more abhorrent. Griner’s alleged offense and Whelan’s are far from the equivalent of Bout’s crimes.

But Griner is not forgotten. Is not forgotten, not like Emad Shargi and Kai Li and Jeffery Woodke and Eyvin Hernandez et. al. Her WNBA sisters said her name on her birthday, October 18. Her NBA brothers joined that chorus, highlighted by NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry who shouted her out on her 32nd birthday when he and his Golden State teammates received their championship rings.

“We hope she comes home soon,” Curry told the crowd during that nationally televised contest, “and that everyone does their best to get her home.”

That hope should include both America’s most famous political chit abroad, and forget all the others, like Whelan ever.

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