Brittney Griner, an eight-time WNBA all-star and Phoenix Mercury center, turned 32 last week. Instead of being able to celebrate with her friends and family, she spent her birthday in a Russian jail cell — just like she’s spent the past 249 days.
On Feb. 17, Griner was detained in a Russian airport, accused of having vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. On May 3, the US state department declared her “wrongfully detained” and on Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for drug smuggling.
As Griner awaits her appeal hearing, which is set to start on Oct. 25, she worries about being forgotten back home.
Those fears aren’t unfounded. Outside of the WNBA and women’s sports, the sports community has largely stayed silent. The WNBA started its most recent season in May featuring decals with Griner’s name and initials on every single court. The NBA, on the other hand, has mostly remained disengaged.
Individuals and teams such as Stephen Curry and the Memphis Grizzlies have taken it upon themselves to show their support for Griner on occasion. But outside of women’s sports, the sports world has generally refrained from advocating for Griner.
And that’s the crux of the issue; The sports world can claim to support women’s sports as much as it wants to, but when it comes down to it, people refrain from making comments and in some cases, even ridicule those who do lend their voices.
Society doesn’t care about women in sports, and female athletes — including at Michigan — notice.
“When you compare Title IX and if you compare an NBA player that’s going to be there and in the same situation that she’s in, you could argue that they would either be back by now or that a lot more people would be involved to try to solve that,” Michigan guard Leigha Brown said at Big Ten Media Days on Oct. 12.
Society makes it a habit to tell young female athletes that Title IX provides them with equality. But outside of mandates for equality in institutions receiving federal funding, where can women in sports look to see that society cares about them, that society values them?
Imagine a parallel: Picture LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes — or any star male athlete, for that matter — being arrested in a foreign country. Now think of the outrage and demands for their return that would follow. There would be immense pressure, from all fronts, on the United States government to do whatever it takes to get them home.
Brittney Griner deserves the same outrage. Not just from the women’s sports world, but from the entire sports world.
“I think about Brittney every single day and I pray for Brittney and her family every single day,” Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico said at Big Ten Media Days. “And I hope we’re working incredibly hard outside of our women’s basketball network, nationally, to bring her home.”
But right now, that simply isn’t the case. And if the entire sports world doesn’t get involved, Griner’s prospects remain the same: slim and dark.
Of course, there have been people doing everything they can to bring Griner home. Across the women’s basketball world, players and coaches have repeatedly called for her release and sent prayers her way.
“I think everybody in the Phoenix community and the WNBA community and women’s basketball and basketball as a whole has done a fantastic job of keeping (Griner) top of heart and top of mind,” Cindy Brunson, the play-by-play voice of the Mercury told The Daily. “ … In the NBA because their platform is so gigantic, and their voices are so big, anytime they have the opportunity to speak on it, it just keeps the issue top of heart and top of mind.”
Brunson — who works for various other networks in addition to the Mercury — has spoken about Griner’s detention as much as she can and intends to do so on all broadcasts she is part of for as long as Griner remains detained. If the rest of the sports world joins Brunson and those who already are fighting for her freedom, that detention will likely be a lot shorter.
When speaking to The Daily, Brunson suggested multiple ways to pressure the Biden administration to work harder towards advocating for Griner’s release, including canceling the NBA’s Christmas games. That would show that the NBA actually cares, compelling the government to listen. Because right now, not enough people are showing that they give a damn to force the State Department to listen.
For things to change, NBA players, teams and fans have to show that getting Griner home is important to them.
“If those teams decided, we’re not going to provide wall-to-wall basketball (on Christmas). We’re going to stay home with our families because (Griner) can’t,” Brunson said.
Brunson highlighted the exigency of the situation. Griner has been away from home for eight months. That’s eight months away from her home, her wife, her family and her team.
And while canceling Christmas games would be a significant and unprecedented step, NBA players have refused to play to bring attention to social justice issues in the past. After the shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic boycotted their playoff game which led to all three playoff games scheduled for that day also being postponed. Players used their platform, and the world took note.
Yes, the situations are very different. What it showed, though, is that when athletes call attention to an issue that matters to them with a significant gesture, fans are forced to pay attention. Brittney Griner deserves that attention. She needs that attention to get home quickly, perhaps even to survive.
There are many ways to call attention to Griner’s detention. But right now, all she gets from the majority of the sports world is inaction.
One of the best players in the WNBA has been detained in Russia for 249 days. Few outside of the women’s sports world have consistently brought attention to her plight.
Women in sports are listening, and they’re hearing silence.
And that, more than any legislation like Title IX, more than any claims about supporting gender equality, is the clearest message being sent.
Cushnir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @lizacushnir