Brittney Griner’s supporters have a new strategy to free her: Make noise
By Tania Ganguli and Jonathan Abrams
Her face is on hoodies. Her name is in hashtags. Her “BG” and number are on fans’ jerseys and WNBA courts.
As Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner waits in Russia, detained since Feb. 17 on drug charges, symbols of support for her are all around. They come from people who don’t know her at all and people who know and love her — from teammates, sympathizers and former coaches.
Dawn Staley, who coached Griner and her U.S. teammates to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics last year, said she thinks about her every day.
“I know Brittney, I’ve been around her, know her heart. I know what she’s about,” Staley said. “And if she’s being wrongfully detained or not, I would be advocating for her release because nobody should be in a foreign country locked up abroad.”
Staley has posted messages on Twitter about Griner every day since early May. “Can you please free our friend,” she wrote Tuesday, tagging the official account for the White House. She added, “All of her loved ones would sleep a little easier.”
It has been more than three months since Griner was detained, accused of having hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. But only in the past few weeks has there been a coordinated public campaign by WNBA players and by Griner’s wife, family, friends and agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, to push for her release. That’s where the hoodies — worn by many players — and the initials — displayed on WNBA courts — come in. The #WeAreBG hashtag seen on warmup shirts and social media is also part of the campaign.
On Saturday, the WNBA players union posted messaging on social media marking the 100th day of Griner’s detention.
The delay in starting the campaign was strategic: Griner’s camp was worried that publicity could make the situation worse because of tensions between Russia and the United States, including the war in Ukraine. But the delay has also been a source of frustration for women’s basketball players known for their social justice advocacy. Their approach has changed since the State Department said May 3 that it had determined that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.”
“Griner’s reclassification as wrongfully detained by the U.S. government cued our shift to the more public activist elements of our strategy,” Kagawa Colas said, adding that she could not elaborate out of respect for the sensitivity of the situation.
Supporters have quickly joined in the new approach.
“We’re more public,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players union. One reason, she said, was the State Department’s determination, and another was the guidance of Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
“She’s lead on this,” Jackson said. “She signaled through her team that she needed us, and that’s all we needed to hear.”
Cherelle Griner appeared on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday and appealed to President Joe Biden to intervene.
“I just keep hearing that he has the power,” Cherelle Griner said. “She’s a political pawn. If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
The State Department’s announcement this month said that Biden’s special envoy for hostage affairs would lead an interagency team to secure Griner’s release. But since then, Griner’s detention has been extended until June 18, and the Biden administration has said little about its maneuvering. Cherelle Griner said during the television interview that her only communication with her wife had been through occasional letters. She said she had been told that her wife’s release was a top priority, but she expressed skepticism.
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, has been speaking publicly about Brittney Griner’s detention and working with her representatives. He said Griner, who is from Houston, has had access to her attorney in Russia but has not been able to speak with her family. That violated international norms, he said.
“The Russians need to be aware that we know what they’re doing, we know why they’re doing it and there will be consequences if anything should happen to her,” Allred said.
In mid-May, the WNBA players union became an official partner on a Change.org petition addressed to the White House, which urged Biden to do “whatever is necessary” to bring Griner home safely. The petition was started in March by Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist who has written for several media outlets, including The New York Times, about the WNBA. Griner’s representatives at Wasserman promoted the petition to news outlets.
In an interview with ESPN on May 17, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked what role the league should play in Griner’s situation. The NBA owns 42.1% of the WNBA.
Silver said that the NBA had “a huge responsibility” to Griner but that it had been muted in its support on the advice of experts who thought amplifying her situation could hinder her release. “Having said that,” Silver said, “there’s an enormous role for the public to play through protest or letting their representatives know how badly, how strongly they feel about this.”
Last week, three House Democrats introduced a resolution calling for Griner’s immediate release.
“It sends a clear message that the representatives of the American people support bringing Brittney home as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona, who introduced the resolution with Allred and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
In addition to following Cherelle Griner’s wishes, the players union sought counsel from Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania, whose areas of study include African American experiences in the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia.
“Now that she’s been detained for so long,” St. Julian-Varnon said, “I think it’s appropriate to get into that second phase of: ‘OK, we have given Russia months. You’ve released Trevor Reed. So, let’s pick up the pressure and show that we have not forgotten about her and that she is still very much wanted at home.’”
Reed, a former Marine, was released as part of a prisoner swap in April after having been held in Russia since 2019 on assault charges.
In an interview with CNN broadcast last Sunday, Reed said media coverage of his case had helped lead to his release.
Staley said she recorded Reed talking about his detention so she could rewatch for clues about what could help Griner.
“Trevor’s saying you’ve got to scream at the top of your lungs. You have to get a meeting with the president,” Staley said. She added: “If you can get in front of him, it’s hard for him to tell you no. It’s hard for him to look into a grieving parent or wife’s eyes and say, ‘I can’t do anything.’”
Because she won a national championship with South Carolina this year, Staley and her team are likely to be invited to the White House to meet with Biden soon.
“I will give Brittney’s wife, parents, family, I will give them our visit to the White House,” she said.