Local experts weigh in on WNBA star Griner being freed in swap for Russian arms dealer Bout

U.S. falls short in negotiating release of another American, Paul Whelan

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed Thursday after being detained in Russia for nearly 10 months.

The United States agreed to free convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange but fell short in negotiating the release of Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia for nearly four years.

The Biden administration has said it was Griner or no one, referring to the terms of a prisoner swap with Russia; however, it said it is still working to bring Whelan home.

After Griner’s release from a Russian penal colony, her wife, Cherelle Griner, addressed the nation from the White House on Thursday.

“Today is just a happy day for me and my family, so I’m going to smile right now,” she said.

It was a process that took months of negotiations.

Local attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimmer and expert on gender equity in sports, said the female athletic community kept the pressure on.

“I think if Brittney Griner had not been a celebrity and had not been a star within the WNBA that she probably would not have gotten so much attention,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Wow, did women’s sports ever unite around Brittney Griner. I’m very proud of us.”

But the news also raised questions about geopolitics and fairness, explained Rick Mullaney, who is a political analyst for News4JAX and director of the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute.

“The whole country of her family sports world celebrates her return. That’s universal. The challenge, however, is the price paid,” Mullaney said.

The price is the exchange of Bout, a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel in the midst of a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

“From Russia’s perspective, they are celebrating this as a negotiation victory,” Mullaney said.

The exchange has also highlighted Whelan’s struggle for freedom. He’s a Michigan corporate security worker jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that the U.S. government has said are meritless.

He spoke to CNN by phone on Thursday.

“I’m happy that Brittney is going home today,” Whelan said. “But I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. had previously offered to trade Bout for both Griner and Whelan.

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I-TEAM and general assignment reporter