Free Brittney Griner Now!

Phoenix Mercury center and WNBA legend Brittney Griner has been held in a Russian prison for nearly two months. Why did the league take so long to speak out publicly in her support?

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury during the 2021 WNBA semifinals in Phoenix, Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

On Monday night, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) finally broke its public silence around the imprisonment of one of the league’s biggest stars, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, detained in a Russian prison since February 17.

“Obviously,” said ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco, “the number one topic on everybody’s mind when it comes to the WNBA right now is Brittney Griner: how she’s doing, her status.” This wasn’t obvious to me. For weeks, the league had said nothing in public conversation, marketing materials, or commercial broadcasts about Griner’s detention.

For the last month or so, I’ve obsessively followed coverage in the women’s basketball community about Brittney Griner. I have a Google Alert for her name that notifies me multiple times a day. I’ve diligently watched every ESPN2 and ESPNU broadcast of Women’s March Madness. And I covered the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis with the explicit goal of understanding what people within women’s basketball had to say about Brittney Griner.

I was dismayed by what I found.

The WNBA, thankfully, is speaking out to advocate for Brittney Griner’s immediate health and safety and bring her home. But significant questions remain: What took the league so long? And what did we learn from its previous silence, even at the height of a record-breakingly popular Women’s March Madness?

A Swift and Mysterious Arrest

On February 17, Griner was attempting to enter the country to continue her season with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian Premier League team she’s played with for over seven years. Despite being one of the all-time WNBA greats, during the off season, Griner plays in Russia to earn additional income. Nearly half of WNBA players play abroad to earn extra income, since salaries for these professional players are a fraction of men’s in the National Basketball Association. If Griner made anywhere close to male players, it seems unlikely she would be in a Russian jail right now.

On this particular day (notably at the very same time that Russia prepared to invade Ukraine), she was detained at an airport near Moscow for allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. We have no way of knowing whether she had any such substance with her at all; even if she did, it’s worth noting that in the United States, professional athletes increasingly support a culture of openness and even entrepreneurship around cannabis.

Some, like the National Football League’s Marshawn Lynch, have launched their own cannabis companies or have major partnerships with cannabis brands. This includes WNBA star Sue Bird who, alongside her fiancee Megan Rapinoe in 2018, became the faces of Mendi, “a sports-focused CBD company” owned by Rapinoe’s twin sister.

Despite having taken dozens of flights back and forth from the United States to Russia since she began playing overseas in 2015, Griner’s arrest was swift and mysterious. Hardly anyone knew her whereabouts until March 5 — two and a half weeks after her arrest — when a Russian state news agency announced her detainment by releasing a single mug shot. It took five weeks from her arrest before the US embassy could get a representative inside the prison to check on Griner. And on May 19, the Russian government will reportedly bring her to a hearing that will determine her fate. The worst-case scenario: ten years in prison and up to five years in a labor camp.

Minnesota Lynx vs Phoenix Mercury at Target Center in Minneapolis, MN on July 14 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the news of Brittney Griner’s detainment broke, people closest to her, including her wife Cherelle Griner, her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, and her teammates in the WNBA, remained nearly universally quiet about the situation. This seems to be following direct advice from the US State Department: as former WNBA star Lisa Leslie revealed in late March, “What we were told is to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn.”

The message sent to the women’s basketball world has been: if you say something, you could make this even worse for Brittney Griner, so leave it to the people who know what they’re doing.

This was where the conversation had stalled when I went to the NCAA Championship in Minneapolis, less than two weeks ago, to find out what the women’s basketball community saying about Griner — not in public, but on the ground.

Forbidden Topic

In addition to the fact that I am a women’s basketball superfan, I joined over eighteen thousand other fans for March Madness because I thought the scene would be fertile ground for conversation about Griner. This was, after all, one of the major women’s basketball events, featuring thousands of people who play, watch, support, and work in women’s basketball. Surely those thousands were intimately familiar with Griner’s plight: she was arrested while trying to leave Russia, the country where she spends much of her year.

But in press conferences, not one journalist asked a single question about Griner’s situation overseas, or its implications for the four hundred college players who recently declared for the WNBA draft. When I tried to talk to a pair of women’s basketball bloggers about it, they reminded me this was an issue to avoid. “I don’t think her family wants us to talk about that,” one said, cutting me off.

During Friday’s semifinal games, I ran into one fan, Lisa Pelofsky, wearing a green and yellow T-shirt that read “Free Brittney Griner.” I asked if we could talk. She glanced at my media credential and blurted out: “Am I in trouble?” All throughout the Final Four, any conversation about Brittney Griner was coated with this kind of fear.

I met Lisa the next day in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. It turned out she has been following Griner’s career since her days at Baylor University. Lisa showed me a photograph of Griner lovingly holding Lisa’s daughter up in the stands of a basketball arena, like a crowd-surfer. Lisa had brought over a hundred “Free Brittney Griner” T-shirts to sell at the Final Four, but no one wanted to buy them.

“When I showed people the shirts, they were weary of putting them on. They sort of looked at it like, ‘I’m not gonna get involved in that, that’s too controversial,’” she said.

By the end of the weekend, Lisa had sold only six shirts.

Then there were the players. After the championship game, amid camera crews and the celebration of South Carolina’s victory, I approached one star WNBA player briefly. She echoed Lisa Leslie’s message: “Ooooh,” she told me with a half shake of her head, “you know we can’t talk about BG. It’s forbidden.” I asked what she’s doing to keep Griner in her heart. She told me she prays every day for Griner’s safe return.

I thought about this former Olympian’s friend and teammate, BG (as her close friends and family call her), isolated in a Russian prison cell. Around us, the Final Four culminated in a swirl of music and confetti. But the silence was there, if you listened for it: not because players or fans necessarily wanted to remain mute, but because powerful institutions had demanded it.

Marginalization of Women’s Sports

As of Monday, the seal of silence has been broken. It’s impossible to know why the WNBA decided to shift its media strategy around Griner. But members of the women’s basketball community who want to get her home safely should inquire about why.

One persistent fear I heard through talking to players and fans on the ground at the NCAA Final Four was that advocating publicly for Griner could provoke Russian president Vladimir Putin to use her as a political pawn. But there’s also strong evidence to suggest that Griner’s detainment was politically motivated at the start. Some experts have simply called this a case of “hostage diplomacy.”

For months outside of women’s basketball and mainstream sports media, these same experts have questioned the official narrative that Griner is simply “under arrest.” As Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant for families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas, told CNN on March 14, “this has a lot of hallmarks of a very wrongful and arbitrary detention.” To his point: Brittney Griner is one of the most recognizable US women’s basketball players in Russia, and the fact that she is openly lesbian is not lost on the Kremlin, which has used state-sponsored homophobia to retain power.

If Griner is a diplomatic hostage, her fate could be determined by how American political power brokers respond — and that is, in part, determined by the pressure those power brokers bring to bear on Griner’s behalf. To advocate for Brittney Griner is not just to catch the attention of the Kremlin, but to make demands on our own government. That is impossible to do in silence.

Brittney Griner goes for a layup during a WNBA game in 2017.

Women’s basketball fans should also have inquiries for the WNBA itself. It was clear during the WNBA draft that the league knows much more about Griner’s well-being than they had previously made public. Through ESPN’s Holly Rowe, audiences learned previously unheard details: “Her representative in Russia is able to see her twice per week, she is able to receive letters and correspondence.” But these updates were buried within the messaging that the league supposedly has Brittney Griner “front of mind” and is doing “all they can” to honor her in her absence.

The Nation’s Dave Zirin has been vocal about Griner’s detainment since the start. “If Tom Brady was behind bars, there would be a daily vigil . . . it would be talked about all the time, there would be an international uproar,” he told Al Jazeera this week.

Unfortunately, American media has long marginalized women’s basketball. It’s actually possible to ignore Griner’s case in the media because, as Zirin notes, “the disrespect for women’s sports is so ingrained in sports media.”

So speaking out about Brittney Griner also means questioning the inherent gender bias in professional American sports and sports media — something that WNBA players themselves often do. The morning after the WNBA draft, one of the league’s most public spokespeople, WNBA Players Association President Nneka Ogwumike, took to Good Morning America to publicly address Griner’s detainment on behalf of players. When Robin Roberts asked if Ogwumike thought gender inequality was an issue in this case, she said, “When is it not? . . . The reality is she’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity.”

Breaking Gender Rules

The greatest achievement of women’s basketball in the last five years may be the sport’s growing culture of speaking out against oppression. Since the mass protests of 2020, when women’s basketball players became leading figures calling for racial justice, the WNBA has established itself as a progressive force in the American cultural landscape. But the case of Griner — even for women’s basketball; even after the 2020 protests, after WNBA players openly backed Raphael Warnock’s liberal senate campaign in Georgia, after Oregon’s Sedona Prince went viral on TikTok for calling out inequities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — reflects uncharted political territory. As Lisa Leslie said about Griner, “This is the first time we’re in this situation, we don’t know what to do.”

At the same time, speaking about Griner is a familiar challenge. Women’s basketball players have never been just athletes. By playing this sport, by loving this sport, women’s basketball players are breaking a laundry list of societal “rules” around gender.

Nowhere is that more clear than in Griner’s own history as a player. She faced public outrage around gender transgression as a student athlete at Baylor from 2009 to 2013; Griner was actually discouraged from coming out publicly as a lesbian, viciously attacked by sports fans across the internet, and had her gender identity openly questioned when she turned down a spot in the Olympics in 2012. The vitriol was so profound that soon after she graduated, she got a bunch of new tattoos and started talking openly about her sexuality, telling USA Today: “I love the freedom that comes with being an adult. No one’s telling you what to do, nothing’s planned out.”

This isn’t the first time Griner has sought freedom. That’s all the more reason the women’s basketball world should rally around her to demand: Free Brittney Griner.