From the hell of a Russian penal colony, an American basketball superstar pleads for her freedom.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” writes Brittney Griner.
From the quiet of Cyrpto.com Arena, Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammates wonder whether anybody is listening.
“There’s not enough outcry, no, period, there’s not enough outcry,” says forward Brianna Turner.
From where she sits in a concrete converted orphanage in her 137th day as essentially a hostage, an American basketball superstar begs for help.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” writes Griner. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
Back in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what should be the biggest story in sports, only one reporter shows up for Mercury pregame player interviews.
“If it were LeBron James or Tom Brady, this would be news that would be in the headlines every day,” says guard Sophie Cunningham. “With B.G., it is, and it’s not, it is, and it’s not, it needs to be a consistent message out there until she’s home.”
In Griner’s first public words since being arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 and subsequently classified as “wrongfully detained,” she directly implored President Joe Biden on Monday to rescue her.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” wrote Griner in excerpts of a handwritten letter released to the media. “Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
The letter is wrenching. The desperation is heartbreaking. The silence is suffocating.
The furor around the detaining of one of the most powerful forces in women’s basketball history — seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic champion, WNBA champion and NCAA champion — has been as muted as her sport.
Folks are curious but not outraged. There have been varying efforts, but no real momentum. There have been attempts to create buzz, but all have fizzled. There was far more uproar five years ago when the three UCLA freshman basketball players were temporarily detained in China for shoplifting.
“We in women’s sports don’t get as much coverage, we get 4% of the media, so this gets 4% of the attention it should be getting,” said Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard. “There’s more that can be done.”
During practice before Game2 of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics wore, “We are BG” shirts. Steph Curry talked, James tweeted and many women’s basketball coaches and players have chimed in.
There is a site, Wearebg.org, that contains a petition that has nearly 300,000 signees. A letter from influential groups representing women, people of color and the LGBTQ community called upon President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to push to gain her release.
Still, nothing has gained steam and nothing has worked.
The U.S. government even botched a planned phone call with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, a few weeks ago on the couple’s fourth anniversary. The call was supposed to go through the U.S Embassy in Moscow but, because it was on a Saturday, nobody showed up for work to make the connection. According to Griner’s representatives, 11 calls from Griner did not go through and the two women never spoke.
“I have zero trust in my government right now,” Cherelle told Associated Press at the time. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home?”
Griner was traveling to play for her powerhouse Russian team for a salary roughly five times what she is paid in the WNBA when she was arrested in a Moscow airport for possessing what authorities said were vape cartridges containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil. Experts have agreed that if such an infraction had truly been committed, she would have normally been sentenced to a month in prison, a fine and deportation.
But a week after she was imprisoned, Russia invaded Ukraine and Griner’s assumed fame made her a political pawn and a candidate for a prisoner swap.
The Russians thought Griner had the power of celebrity, and even said as much.
“The famous athlete was detained with illegal drugs that contained narcotic substances,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman. “Only the court can pass a verdict.”
But it turns out, the 6-foot-9 icon apparently isn’t famous enough.
Brittney Griner is not only being held captive by the Russians, but also by her appearance and sexuality.
She’s Black. She’s covered in tattoos. She has dreadlocks. She’s gay. She doesn’t fit America’s image of the ideal female athlete, so America is pretty much shrugging.
If this had been Brady, we’d be going to war right now.
“If it was LeBron [James,] he’d be home, right?” said Nygaard. “It’s a statement about the value of women, it’s a statement about the value of a Black person, it’s a statement about the value of a gay person — all those things. We know it and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
Griner has plenty of detractors, and they have been plenty loud, focusing mostly on two points.
If she’s dumb enough to bring drugs into a foreign country, she deserves what she gets!
Back in 2020, she refused to come out of the locker room for the national anthem, how dare she ask for this country’s protection now!
In answering the first criticism, yeah, if the drug charges are true, she was incredibly foolish and reckless, but for now the drug charges are only Russian allegations. And the U.S. State Department has since classified her as “wrongfully detained,” so it’s about something much bigger than a vape bust.
In answering the second criticism, just because an American protests against America doesn’t mean they should be excluded from its protection, does it? Isn’t that the beauty of free speech?
Caught in an international nightmare amid divisive national perception, Griner continues to wait while her teammates' fears continue to grow.
“Playing 10 years in Russia, being in different places in Russia, I can only imagine what a Russian prison is like,” said close friend Diana Taurasi. “We have to keep pushing. The heat has got to get up.”
The temperature briefly rose last week when the 31-year-old Griner showed up for the first day of her ‘trial’ wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt with her arms shackled together and cuffed to a guard. The photos went viral. She looked like a ghost. The trial could last up to two months, conviction is all but certain and her sentence could be up to 10 years.
“It breaks my heart, it literally gives me goose bumps, you see her and see the deflation in the way she looks,” said Cunningham. “You just want to squeeze her and give her a big bear hug and let her know it will be OK.”
After the photo release, a few moments of national interest, then more national silence.
The Sparks took the baton Monday by collecting shoes at the arena front door in honor of Griner’s annual “BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive,” a charity that began when Griner would regularly stop and give homeless people shoes out of the trunk of her car. The Sparks later donated one pair of the shoes to a young girl during the game.
It was a great effort, and here’s hoping it can reverberate beyond the couple of thousand people in attendance and the small group watching on national television. Right now, that feels like a pretty high hope.
“If anyone out there is listening …” said Nygaard.
If they are, for Brittney Griner, it’s 137 days in hell … and counting.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.