With all due respect to the Las Vegas Aces, the biggest story in WNBA quarters over the past week was not Chelsea Gray leading Sin City to its first major professional sports title on Sunday. No, the biggest WNBA story of the past seven days was President Biden meeting face-to-face with the family of Brittney Griner, the seven-time Phoenix Mercury all-star who’s been wrongfully detained in a Russian prison since mid-February.
At 6’9” and approaching her 32nd birthday, Griner’s closest on-court comps in the men’s game are Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, two revolutionary, late-prime talents capable of regularly pulling off feats of skill and athleticism once thought unfathomable for their sport. Before Griner, a woman dunking a basketball was such a rare occurrence that it made national headlines or the first segment of SportsCenter. After Griner, it was just something that women of a certain size were capable of doing.
Griner, who missed the entire 2022 WNBA season while locked up abroad, has been just as impactful off the court, where she became one of the first openly gay athletes in major professional sports. Her wife, Cherelle, has been a constant presence in press coverage of Griner’s detainment. After meeting with Biden on Friday, Cherelle Griner released a statement that read, in part, “I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her. I look forward to the day my wife is back home. As my family and I continue on this journey, I’d like to thank the broad coalition of friends, leaders, and supporters who continue to stand with us and advocate for Brittney’s swift and safe return.”
‘More difficult than just calling Putin up’
Back in February, security officials at a Moscow airport found vape cartridges containing seven-tenths of a gram of hashish oil that Griner was medically approved to possess in the United States. But Russia, where Griner has played professionally for years in order to supplement her WNBA income, is not the United States. And in August, Griner was sentenced to a prison term of nine years, a punishment that is exactly as ludicrous as it seems.
#FreeBritneyGriner 214 days my sister and friend @brittneygriner has been wrongfully detained in a Russian prison. Lifting you in prayer this morning for your safe return, BG! #WeAreBG pic.twitter.com/lHqLm78lUX
— dawnstaley (@dawnstaley) September 19, 2022
On Monday, Russian officials reaffirmed their willingness to negotiate a prisoner swap that would result in Griner’s release. In return, it has been widely reported that the U.S. would be expected to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “the merchant of death” who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison for selling weapons to the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Throughout Griner’s detainment, a common narrative that’s emerged is that Griner would have already been released if she were a male athlete of equal prominence. But as Lindsay Gibbs of Power Plays so eloquently put it, “We actually don’t know for sure that Griner would have already been released if she was Tom Brady or LeBron James. As f**ked up as our criminal justice system is, Russia’s is a whole separate beast. And while it’s understandable to blanketly blame President Biden and his administration for Griner’s continued detainment, getting Griner home is a lot more difficult than just calling Putin up.”
Then again, “there’s not a single NBA player that would have to be in [Griner’s] position” of moonlighting in an adversarial foreign country to make ends meet, said Marissa Coleman, a 10-year WNBA veteran who retired after the 2018 season.
“[NBA players] are lucky to sign these insane contracts that will create generational wealth for their families for years to come,” added Coleman, now vice president of business development for the Gaming Society, a new platform for inclusive sports betting and gaming started by Kevin Garnett and Players’ Tribune co-founder Jaymee Messler.
While playing for her Russian squad, Griner reportedly made $1.5 million per season — or more than six times the $227,900 salary she earned annually as a member of the Phoenix Mercury. As for James, he just signed an extension with the Los Angeles Lakers that will pay him $48.5 million per year.
NBA response ‘pretty performative’
Griner’s WNBA peers and the league’s followers have been relentless in keeping her plight front and center, something Coleman expects will continue in the offseason. But despite a record year in terms of television viewership and sports betting handle, the league and its luminaries only have so much reach.
It has been 213 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. @WhiteHouse @potus @vp , we are paying attention and we are counting on you. #WeAreBG
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) September 19, 2022
“It takes time to build,” said Coleman. “It was a slow grind for the NBA, too. If you watched Winning Time, you kind of saw some of the parallels with the early stages of the NBA and what the W[NBA] is going through. I absolutely think sports betting could be a conduit in helping to grow our league. You see FanDuel signing their deal with the WNBA. The more visibility we can bring to this game, the more people will want to watch and be involved. If you bet on women, you have to know how they are. It’s all about visibility. With sports betting, if you’re a fan of Chelsea Gray, you’re gonna want to bet on her because she’s a sure bet.”
The WNBA season may be over, but the men are ramping up, with the NBA’s preseason scheduled to start on Sept. 30. And while James and others have tweeted sporadically about Griner’s imprisonment, Coleman thinks there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“As far as NBA players, it’s been disappointing to see these players with the biggest platform in sports not using it a little more,” said Coleman. “And when they do post, it seems pretty performative. The power the NBA has and the power [Commissioner] Adam Silver has, if they wanted to make it a priority, they could.
“Her situation hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I don’t think it’s been plastered on CNN and the news stations like it should be, and that’s unfortunate.”
The WNBA will resume play around early May, expanding from 36 to 40 regular season games. Should Griner find herself back on U.S. soil prior to tipoff, it’s likely that the rigors of prolonged incarceration will require her to embark upon a substantial physical rehabilitation regimen should she hope to return to the court.
But how Griner looks if and when she laces up again is the furthest thing from Coleman’s mind.
“I honestly have no expectations for Brittney on the court. We just want her home safe and sound,” said Coleman. “Basketball is what we do; it’s not who we are. I’m sure she just wants to get home and spend time with her family. My only expectation for her is to come back home and get to a place mentally where she can put this behind her.”
Photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY