Basketball legend Lisa Leslie said she and others in the women’s basketball world “were told” not to be too vocal about the arrest of Brittney Griner in Russia, for fear of turning her into a “political pawn.”
“What we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation and war,” Leslie said in a clip from the podcast, which is set to air in full on Monday.
Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in mid-February by Russian authorities who claimed she was carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport. She had been in Russia playing for a team there, a common practice for WNBA players due to the higher pay.
But Griner’s detention did not make the news in the United States until March, after Russian customs officials and news outlets publicized the arrest.
The fact that Griner’s initial arrest seemingly went unnoticed ― and the relative quiet of the U.S. media and the WNBA even after the news broke ― has drawn criticism, notably a New York Magazine story asking, “Why Isn’t Brittney Griner the Biggest Sports Story in the Country?”
Russia announced the arrest about a week and a half into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting speculation that officials hoped to use Griner for leverage with the U.S.
Leslie’s comments suggested that people closer to the situation shared that concern, though she didn’t say exactly where the instruction to not make a “fuss” came from.
“I won’t say who said that, but it’s kind of what’s been spreading throughout the women’s basketball world,” she said.
She added that those who care about Griner struggled with whether keeping quiet was actually the right thing to do.
“It’s heartbreaking, for all of us,” she said.
Griner remains incarcerated in Russia. An official from the U.S. Embassy who was allowed to see her said she was in “good condition,” the U.S. State Department said earlier this week.
The WNBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from HuffPost about Leslie’s comments. The organization said in a statement earlier this month that it was working “diligently” to get Griner home.
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