Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia on drug charges could be described through the lens of war and politics, with Griner, one of the world’s best basketball players, a casualty of an international struggle between superpowers.
But in the nearly 10 months she was imprisoned until her release on Thursday, Griner became a symbol of much more: the inequities in men’s and women’s sports, the complexity of the fight for social justice, and especially the power of the W.N.B.A.’s players and their supporters, who steadily rallied for Griner’s freedom.
“Women, when we’re advocating for something, when we want something to happen, we’ve got the strength of 10 men,” said Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina. She added, “I hope people are watching.”
Griner was released from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer sentenced to 25 years in prison in the United States. Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony in August, about six months after she was detained at an airport near Moscow when customs officials found vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine, heightening tensions between the United States and Russia.
As the war in Ukraine complicated the White House’s negotiations for Griner’s release, the W.N.B.A. players’ union spearheaded a public campaign to free her. The players have earned a reputation for potent activism: In 2020, their support helped fuel the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory in a Georgia Senate race, and they dedicated their season to fighting systemic racism. This time, they leaned on President Biden to help one of their own.
“We realized what power our voices have,” Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said. “Doing it for Brittney, I don’t think it was a burden for anyone.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, thanked the W.N.B.A.’s “fearless union,” in a statement celebrating Griner’s release.
Disparities in Sports
The spotlight of Griner’s detention brought questions about the modest W.N.B.A. salaries that push dozens of players to international teams in the off-season to make more money. Griner has been one of the W.N.B.A.’s biggest stars since the Phoenix Mercury drafted her No. 1 overall in 2013, and she won two gold medals with the U.S. women’s national team. Still, she was in Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, which reportedly paid her at least $1 million, quadruple the maximum W.N.B.A. salary.
“The players are going to do what they think is best for themselves,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Thursday, “but we definitely inform them all the time of the security risks of where they might be playing.”
Dozens of American men still chose to play for Russian basketball teams during Griner’s detention, though most had little chance of making the N.B.A. But almost all American women stayed away. Many star W.N.B.A. players took pay cuts to compete for lower-paying teams in other European countries.
Collier, who won the W.N.B.A. Rookie of the Year Award in 2019, said Griner’s “scary” ordeal had changed her mind about playing overseas again, even though staying home would cost her money and playing time. “For me, it’s not worth it,” she said.
Since Engelbert became the commissioner in 2019, she has focused on adding sponsors and developing new ways for players to earn money, such as marketing deals with the W.N.B.A. But increasing the league’s profile and revenue has been a challenge in the face of a sports ecosystem that is mostly blind to female athletes because of its overwhelming focus on men’s sports.
Big-name N.B.A. stars, such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, leveraged that disparity and drew focus to Griner by publicly supporting her. But some critics wanted more vocal support for Griner from the N.B.A., which owns about 40 percent of the women’s league and has $10 billion in annual revenue. N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said he had talked to political figures behind the scenes, but said government officials had asked the league to be low-key so as not to inflame tensions with Russia.
Silver said in a statement on Thursday that he was happy Griner was coming home after enduring “an unimaginable situation.”
Some have wondered whether an N.B.A. player like James would have been held as long as Griner, or detained at all. Before this episode, many average N.B.A. players would have been better known by the public than Griner, even though she’s at the top of her sport. The W.N.B.A.’s games can be hard to find, with broadcasts spread across multiple channels, streaming services and social media sites. The league has been around for 26 seasons, compared with 77 for the N.B.A.
“We have to build more household names in this league,” Engelbert said.
Gay, Black, Female and ‘Voiceless’
Griner’s case was never simple. Even though she was said to have been in possession of only trace amounts of hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, she faced drug smuggling charges that carried the potential for a 10-year sentence. The U.S. State Department said in May that she had been “wrongfully detained,” indicating that she should be considered a hostage.
“She was voiceless,” said Staley, who coached Griner on one Olympic team. “She was in a place that she couldn’t fight for herself. She couldn’t speak up for herself.”
And Griner faced additional risks as a gay Black woman imprisoned in a country known for harsh treatment of people like her. In 2014, she became the first openly gay athlete to sign a deal with Nike. L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights groups, including the National Black Justice Coalition, have stood behind her. The coalition called Griner an “icon” and a “symbol of hope” in a statement as it thanked Biden for making her a “top priority.”
It didn’t always seem that way to her supporters. As the months went by and Griner’s name dipped in and out of headlines, fans filled social media websites with the hashtag #WeAreBG to plead for people to care. Some pointed to Griner’s race as a potential factor in the broader public’s ebbing concern, saying that the falloff mirrored the way missing white women often draw more attention than missing Black women.
Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, thanked “Black women, the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community and civil rights leaders” in particular for standing with Griner.
But even as Griner’s detention unified many athletes, fans and advocacy groups, it highlighted the unequal ways a push for justice could play out.
“Brittney is going to have to endure the fact that we have people who are questioning why she’s home,” Staley said, referring to those who have criticized the government for not bringing home other wrongfully detained Americans. “Why did they choose her?”
Experts have said that there are dozens of Americans held around the world, many of them classified as “wrongfully detained,” as Griner was. But often their families are their most vocal supporters, not legions of sports fans, famous athletes and other celebrities.
Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, said in a news conference with Biden on Thursday that their family would work to help free other detained Americans. Kagawa Colas said in her statement that “bringing our people home is a moral issue” and listed 13 Americans detained around the world that Griner’s closest supporters would work to release.
“Our eyes have been opened through this process to your struggle and, as we have always done, B.G. and our coalition of activist athletes will ensure that silence is no longer an option,” she said.