For more than a century elite Black American athletes have been at the center of controversy on international stages. When Jack Johnson defeated Tommy Burns for the heavyweight championship in 1908 in Australia it created an uproar; in Berlin at the 1936 Olympics after the great sprinter Jesse Owens won several Gold Medals it caused Adolph Hitler to leave the stadium; Tennis immortal Althea Gibson stunned Wimbledon in 1956 when she became the first African American woman to win the singles championship; and when John Carlos and Tommy Smith with black gloved fists expressed their political views on the victory podium in Mexico in 1968, the Olympic committee suspended them from the team.

Now comes WNBA star Brittney Griner, currently held in detention in Moscow and charged with drug smuggling. Of course, we are not comparing the clamor around Ms. Griner with the other historic moments, but it’s hard to ignore the intersection of discrimination and racism in each of the incidents.

Griner, for those unfamiliar with her ordeal, was arrested four months ago after Russian officials claimed she was in possession of vape cartridges bearing traces of hash oil in her luggage as she moved through customs at Moscow’s international airport. This occurred on Feb. 17 one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, but it wasn’t revealed that she was detained until after the war began.

A critical concern in the whole affair is the extent to which her arrest and detention—and possible conviction that could lead to a 10-year sentence—is part of Russia’s plan to use her as a pawn in a prisoner exchange with the U.S.

Like the political intrigue and drama that proceeded from the other incidents with Black American athletes, to properly contextualize them requires a deep dive into global affairs, particularly when it comes at a time of world events that have ramifications for America’s interest, either socially, culturally or economically.

What we know for certain is that the above mentioned Black athletes embroiled in these circumstances often had their careers hampered, if not altogether waylaid, and this was especially detrimental to Jack Johnson, John Carlos, and Tommy Smith.

We can only speculate that the repercussions from this ordeal in Moscow will be a troubling obstacle in Ms. Griner’s promising career, and let us hope that she doesn’t turn out to be a pawn in Putin’s game.

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