The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brittney Griner’s fate poses a warning to U.S. sports and Hollywood

Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom outside Moscow on July 7. The WNBA star is on trial on drug charges stemming from her arrest in February. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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Audiences in authoritarian countries might buy American products — but that doesn’t mean they buy American values.

That is an unpleasant truth the American sports and entertainment industries must grapple with now that Brittney Griner, the WNBA star, is facing 10 years in a Russian prison for an alleged drug offense.

The free-trader’s argument for cultural and athletic engagement with authoritarian countries has long been that American cultural products are great ambassadors for American values. But, too often, the price for access to those markets has been silence — or at least quiet — on everything from the basic facts about Taiwan’s status as an independent nation to the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Griner’s detention suggests that the cost could get much higher, if dictators see an opportunity to turn stars into bargaining chips.

Which raises the question: Are these dangers and compromises truly worth it?

Sure, global audiences have shelled out billions of dollars for the thrill of watching the physics-defying high jinks of street racer Dominic Toretto in the “Fast and Furious” franchise or dinosaur death matches in the “Jurassic World” movies. And LeBron James is a giant international basketball star — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in salary and endorsements.

But there is nothing particularly democratic about such exports. And stars and executives seeking the right to pursue these business opportunities might have been compensated handsomely — but many have also paid with their integrity and dignity.

In early 2019, for instance, Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings acknowledged that the company had censored an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” that criticized Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in exchange for the ability to air shows with explicit sexual content in the kingdom. Last year, actor John Cena made a groveling Mandarin-language apology to his Chinese fans for the sin of referring to Taiwan as the independent nation it is.

Disney, which hoped its live-action remake of “Mulan” would be a hit in China, disgraced itself two years ago by thanking Xinjiang government agencies, including those allegedly involved in the suppression and surveillance of ethnic minorities, in the film’s credits.

But another dust-up exacted higher stakes.

In fall 2019, then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey briefly tweeted, then deleted, support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. His abortive exercise of free speech preceded a trip to China by Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association. The NBA released a statement saying that Morey’s remarks “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” In China, James asked Silver whether Morey would be disciplined for the trouble he had caused the league, a discouraging display of preference for profit over principle from a star who has been outspoken on other issues.

This time, though, the consequences weren’t limited to a domestic public relations disaster. Figures in the Chinese government and business community demanded Morey be fired. China Central Television, which had the exclusive broadcast rights to NBA games, banned them (with the exception of one 2020 playoff) and returned to a normal broadcast schedule only this spring. Chinese sponsors cut ties with the league. In April 2021, Silver estimated that “the total revenue loss across all of our business lines in China” was “in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Chinese fans, businesses and government officials may like American basketball teams. But it turned out they liked U.S. deference to China’s territorial claims even more. The NBA wasn’t able to use its popularity in China to champion American values. Instead, an authoritarian regime proved it could, and would, use the league’s success against it.

There are echoes of the NBA’s misfortunes in the far greater calamity that has befallen Griner and her family. Griner was arrested in Moscow in February on her way to play for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason and charged with bringing two vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country. Her detention coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, giving the impression that the Kremlin had effectively taken a high-profile hostage. Earlier this month, she pleaded guilty, saying she had packed the cartridges by accident.

If the optimistic logic of American cultural exports held true, Griner’s Americanness and star status should have protected her. But the Russian government’s decision to arrest and prosecute Griner reveals a blunt calculation: Americans value Griner more than Russians ever could. And the Putin regime can use her as leverage in its showdown with the United States without provoking domestic disgruntlement.

It should have been clear long before now that what’s good for Hollywood or American sports isn’t inherently good for the United States. With China letting in fewer American movies and Griner in a Russian jail, U.S. sports leagues and entertainment companies need a reckoning.

Appeasing tyrannical governments has never been a good look — especially when the rewards are laced with poison.

correction

An earlier version of this column misspelled Hasan Minhaj's name. This version has been corrected.

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