Prominent US sports stars showed their support during Wednesday night’s ESPY awards for Olympic champion Brittney Griner, who is detained in Russia on drug charges.
NBA star Stephen Curry hosted the awards show, which is often referred to as the Emmys of the sports world. Griner was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport over allegations she tried to bring cannabis oil into Russia. She faces up to 10 years in jail. The US government considers the 31-year-old wrongfully detained, and some believe her arrest was politically motivated during a time of escalated tension between Russia and the US.
Curry noted the efforts to bring Griner home, but said more needed to be done.
“But as we hope for the best, we urge the entire global sports community to continue to stay energized on her behalf,” he said. “[Griner] is one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and all over the world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or global conflict.”
US soccer star Megan Rapinoe picked up the award for best play and used her speech to bring attention to Griner’s imprisonment.
“I think honestly what we’ve witnessed tonight is the importance of sport and how much we can bring and how much we can get done in the world with our collective power,” Rapinoe said. “Every time we say her name, it puts pressure on everyone – puts pressure on the administration, puts pressure on Russia. The most striking thing is that BG isn’t here. BG deserves to be free. We can support her more and let her know that we love her so much.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, was in the audience and applauded mention of her the player’s ordeal. Griner was in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, but she is also a star in the WNBA for Phoenix Mercury. Her fellow WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith also mentioned Griner at the show.
“It’s been 153 nights now that BG has been wrongfully detained thousands of miles away from home, away from her family, away from her friends, away from her team,” Diggins-Smith said. “All throughout that time, we’ve kept her in our thoughts and in our hearts even though we know that ain’t nearly enough to bring her home, y’all.”
Griner pled guilty to drug possession and smuggling charges in her trial earlier this month but said “there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.”
Griner’s legal team in Russia said the guilty plea was “her decision”, adding: “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
There has been speculation that Griner could be part of a prisoner swap for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a sentence in the US for conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.