The Women’s National Basketball Players Association anchors its collective action in the 144 players represented by the union. But what happens when the 144 are missing one?
Nearly five months after her arrest in Russia, Brittney Griner’s absence leaves a gaping hole in every aspect of this WNBA season. The All-Star Game in Chicago this weekend was the latest event marked by the international struggle to return Griner to the U.S.
In a somber news conference Friday to commence All-Star weekend, Rev. Al Sharpton joined Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and WNBPA leaders Nneka Ogwumike, Sue Bird and Terri Jackson to highlight the qualities they believe make Griner’s return to the U.S. essential — her humanity, courage and identity as an American.
“Bring Brittney home,” Sharpton said. “Bring her home to her wife. We are going to stand with her until you do. ... We know the tension between nations. We know there’s conflict going on. But we also know there ought to be a place where conflict stops and where the politics stop and the international rivalries stop and say some people operate above that and because they have, we will operate on a humanitarian level.”
The event marked a sharp turn in the tone set by Griner’s family and the WNBPA as Griner nears five months of detainment.
Cherelle said she felt zero trust in the U.S. government only weeks ago after the State Department bungled a phone call coordinated with the Russian government. But the group placed trust in the Biden administration Friday.
“I want to make it very clear that our next move as supporters for (Brittney Griner) is to make sure that the administration understands that they have our full support and are doing any and everything necessary to be able to bring (her) home as well as every other wrongfully detained American,” Cherelle Griner said.
Cherelle — who was dressed in mourning black, the only appearance of color coming from the orange “We are BG” on her blouse — reflected a newfound hope in the administration’s ability to maneuver Griner’s return from Russia.
Griner, 31, sent a handwritten letter to Biden from her cell this week, begging the president to not forget her amid other political turmoil in the U.S. Since then, Biden and vice president Kamala Harris met with Cherelle and wrote a letter to Griner in return.
“(President Biden) understood and he sees her as a person,” Cherelle said. “He has not forgotten her, which was her biggest cry in her letter. So I’m grateful. And I’m thankful that the administration that was the first one that BG ever voted for, took the time to see her as a person to see what she’s going through and speak to me directly and let me know that they are exhausting all efforts to bring her home.”
In a plea to overlook politics and party lines, Sharpton and WNBPA representatives stressed Griner’s common humanity.
Sharpton painted a picture of distress, describing Griner being transported to court in vehicles too small for her 6-foot-9 frame, unable to speak to her wife or loved ones and being far away from home where the people she encounters do not speak English. Ogwumike and Bird shared memories of Griner as a teammate, friend and loved one to players throughout the league.
“What America needs to understand is that she is you too,” Ogwumike said. “She is the fun aunt. She is the wife who encourages her spouse to thrive. She is the daughter who celebrates her dad’s service on the Fourth. She is the kid who was bullied and a role model who stands up for those kids now. She is kind and she is all of ours. ... We’re so lucky to know her. If you don’t know her, you need to. She is resilient, kind and Brittney Griner is an American.”
Griner entered a guilty plea Thursday in the next step of her trial — likely as a step to facilitate future action by the U.S. government — which is currently set to conclude in August. Sharpton called Griner a “champion” for taking responsibility with this action, adding hope that Russian courts would recognize the time she already has served and forego further jail time. But some reports predict Griner could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Sharpton said he reached out to the Russian Orthodox church in the hopes of traveling to Russia to pray with Griner, but he focused on a higher goal — meeting with the WNBA star when she’s safely returned to U.S. soil.
In the meantime, WNBA players, coaches and fans will continue to highlight Griner’s absence and advocate for her return throughout All-Star weekend and the conclusion of the season.
“Brittney Griner is an American hero,” Ogwumike said. “She’s ours and she’s yours and we must get her home. She looks like us. She is us. Our 144 have always stood together as sisters and an allyship. It’s part of our DNA as team sport athletes and as women who have often been undervalued and who must move together to be seen.”