For 294 days, Brittney Griner had been imprisoned in Russia. The WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist for Team USA was in Russia during the W’s offseason to earn more money to supplement what she gets from the WNBA. It’s common practice, a function of the W’s low pay.
Griner was arrested at a Russian airport as she was about to board a plane home in February, charged with possession of vape cartridges that contained hashish oil. The timing was bad. It took place as tensions rose over Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine which took place days later.
The arrest had all the hallmarks of a setup and the U.S. said she’d been wrongfully detained.
During her incarceration in Russia, things got worse. She was found guilty in a sham trial and sentenced to nine years in prison. In November, she was transferred to a penal colony, a torturous environment widely acknowledged as the worst of the worst in the Russian gulag. It appeared as if all hope was lost, no pathway for her release and return to home and family.
Then, on Thursday morning, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announced the news that Griner was coming home from Russia. On December 1, CBS had confirmed that BG would be heading home, but after the government asked the network to hold off, due to the sensitive nature of negotiations and safety risks of this case, everyone kept quiet until it was a done deal. In exchange for Griner, the United States sent Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” back to Russia. At the White House, BG’s wife, Cherelle Griner, spoke alongside President Biden and VP Harris after the announcement:
“Today is just a happy day for me and my family.”— The Associated Press (@AP) December 8, 2022
Watch Cherelle Griner's full remarks on the release of her wife Brittney Griner from Russia in a high-level prisoner exchange. https://t.co/H0w8BNpEvR pic.twitter.com/CSW2oIRUoz
Upon hearing the good news early Thursday morning, there was an outpouring of love for BG. South Carolina and USA Women’s National Basketball Team head coach, Dawn Staley, appeared with Las Vegas Aces head coach, Becky Hammon, on ESPN’s First Take to discuss Griner’s release:
Players and teams across the WNBA, including the Liberty and Nets, celebrated the return of their friend and peer. There was a sense of relief across the board.
Kyrie Irving, long a supporter of the WNBA, its union, the WNBPA and women’s basketball in general, tweeted his happiness at the news...
Welcome Home BG!— Hélà (@KyrieIrving) December 8, 2022
Thank you for exemplifying what a true Warrior spirit looks like. You’re forever loved by so many unconditionally. ♾
The WNBPA worked to uplift BG and keep her in our thoughts every day. The players and their union brought their attention, their focus to her detention, and advocated for her return in every forum imaginable. The players made sure she was not going to be forgotten and kept her at the center of everything they did. They also won’t forget the other Americans that are detained abroad, as Isabelle Harrison explained to the New York Times:
“We also want those other prisoners over there to come home as well. We don’t want them to just be like, ‘Oh, we just got B.G. home, and we’re done.’ No, that’s not what the W does.”
DAY 153.— WNBPA (@TheWNBPA) July 20, 2022
Members of the @nyliberty and Coach @SBrondello visited the @BOFHcampaign’s mural at 3125 M Street NW today. This mural features 18 wrongfully detained US Nationals including our member, @brittneygriner.#WeAreBG #BringThemHome#WeAreNotThe144WithoutBG pic.twitter.com/2JAa7x5dX8
In July, a mural honoring Americans detained abroad was unveiled in Washington DC. The New York Liberty were in town to play the Washington Mystics that week and attended a rally where family members spoke about their detained loved ones. In the media availability prior to their game against the Mystics, Sandy Brondello, who had been Griner’s coach in Phoenix before the joined New York, spoke about being at the mural and meeting the families of detained Americans overseas and said:
“It was great [to be there], just being in the right place at the right time. BG is someone that I obviously love dearly and its unfortunate the situation that she’s in and I hope that we can get her home soon. But to meet some of the families, that was actually quite touching and to realize so many other stories - that was me probably being a little bit ignorant [of their situations], I am Australian. But BG, I think, has put it at the forefront all these other people that are wrongfully detained overseas. There’s 65 [people detained overseas], but there’s only 18 on the mural. I think we’ve gotta put their names out there a little bit more. But meeting families, it makes it really real. These are fathers, brothers, sons, a lot of different things and hopefully that they can all come home soon.”
Sandy also appeared on ESPN’s NBA Today and discussed her relationship with BG:
She was also interviewed by Hallie Jackson of MSNBC...
New York Liberty Head Coach @SBrondello sat down with @MSNBC to discuss Brittney Griner's release. pic.twitter.com/2R1SeJVBQ3— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) December 9, 2022
It was a massive community effort to get BG home. NBA players such as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, etc. followed the lead of the WNBPA and WNBA community at large in calling for Griner’s safe, immediate return home. They got all of them to use their social media accounts and wear “We Are BG” pins in public settings...
The Biden administration stayed focused on getting Griner home and worked nonstop to finally get her home. Solidarity matters in all situations, and it takes on even more importance when one of your own is in danger, perhaps even mortally so. It takes everyone to lift their voices and stand together as one to bring light to an injustice and right a wrong.
Even outside of the WNBA, the support and love for Griner was there. As Ryan Berger, the cofounder of DAPS, which mans the intersection of culture, tech, sports, and media, explained in October:
“She needs us more than ever and even though we all don’t play the same sports or are in the same leagues, we are all connected in a very special way.”
What are the next steps?
For Griner, now that she’s home, the process of healing can begin. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke to reporters on Thursday afternoon and mentioned that BG will have all of the mental health resources she needs whenever she is ready to engage with the WNBA and the players. The league is going to follow her lead on reengaging with the league and won’t bombard her as she adjusts back to being in the USA. There may be questions about when she’ll return to the Phoenix Mercury if she so chooses, but that’s a convo for another day.
The transition back into life after being held captive is a difficult one, as Jessica Buchannan, herself a hostage, explained to TJ Quinn of ESPN:
“Whether you’re being illegally detained by a government actor or being held hostage by a group of gangsters, the similarities are that you’re afraid, you have no autonomy. “You’re in a situation that no one has prepared you for, that nothing will prepare you for.”
BG has spoken about the importance of mental health in the past, and having the entire sports world behind her might help as she readjusts to being back in the United States.
At Engelbert’s press conference, the discussion turned to pay in the W. Engelbert was asked about players hooping overseas during the offseason, and said:
“I’ve been a big advocate for letting the players do what they want to do with their offseason. This is their time to figure out what they want to do. But we’re also chipping away at the economic model and growing the league, and so we’ve tripled the number of player-marketing agreements we did with players this year.”
Jackie Powell of The Next has a detailed breakdown of the players with marketing agreements here.
Engelbert noted that the average career length of a WNBA player is five years. Along with that, there are only 144 spots in the league and not enough minutes to dole out for everyone. That tends to leave certain players out in the cold and they leave to join teams where they get to play and consistently contribute. Hoopers love to hoop and if they get more money than what they usually get, they’re gonna try to get it while they can. It’s something Brondello knows well and what she explained to CNN on Sunday morning:
New York Liberty Head Coach @SBrondello sat down with @CNN to discuss Brittney Griner's release. pic.twitter.com/ubSNFKMGBi— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) December 11, 2022
The money question will continue to come up, and as players like Kelsey Plum have noted, they want an equal share of revenue. Engelbert noted players like Sabrina Ionescu and Candace Parker have taken on new roles that allow them to earn more money and more visibility. In her rookie year, as she appeared on commercials for insurance and other products, Ionescu made only $63,000 from the league. Engelbert also talked about deploying the capital they raised in February towards improving the league and pay, saying:
“We are chipping away at paying the players more so they have more opportunities here. We have internship opportunities. They’re finding other employment. They’re getting more personal endorsements because we’ve been throwing a lot of marketing dollars behind marketing them. But Rome wasn’t built in a day as I say and we need a couple more years with this transformation. When I came in, I said it’s a three to five year transformation. We hit the pandemic, that put us a little behind. We raised the capital in February. We’re deploying that against a lot of things: bringing new fans in, building out our digital footprint and our digital products, hiring human capital to help us grow the league even more so that the players will be able to say “This is where they wanna play, 40 games...
Chipping away at all that, we still need some time for full transformation to take effect and the deployment of that capital we raised just in February. But we’re well on our way.”
The WNBA has continued to make gains over time. The league is growing and continuing to make an impact in the community, and with that growth comes a need to assess where things are going forward. That comes with figuring out a way to ensure players get a bigger piece of a growing financial pie. If they’re able to do so, players will have more flexibility in choosing if and where they play in the offseason. There are other issues the league needs to address, like the policy that prohibits teams from booking players on anything other than commercial flights. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s about equality ... and respect.
All of that will hopefully come in time, but for now, we celebrate the safe return of Brittney Griner back home. That’s the biggest and most important thing.
There have been those, primarily on the right, who have criticized the Biden Administration’s decision to get BG back and leave Paul Whelan, a former Marine, behind. Like Griner, Whelan’s trial was a sham and he’s been held in a Russian penal colony. But the two cases are different and the real issue is not found in U.S. politics, but righting wrongs when and where you can.