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U.S. officials say they're doing all they can for Brittney Griner. Are they?

People are shouting out Brittney Griner's name in the hopes that their cries will land upon Biden’s ears.
Image: Brittney Griner and Cherelle Watson
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury walks with wife Cherelle Griner after defeating the Dallas Wings at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida on August 10, 2020.Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images file

There are two people Cherelle Griner would like to talk to: her wife Brittney Griner, the Women’s National Basketball Association superstar wrongly detained by the Russian government for over 140 days, and President Joe Biden, whose administration claims to be trying to get Brittney Griner released. She hasn’t been able to speak to either.

Cherelle Griner said that she’s repeatedly asked to speak to the president, but her requests have been denied.

In a Wednesday evening interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Cherelle Griner said she has repeatedly asked to speak to the president, but her requests have been denied. And as for speaking to her wife? That was supposed to happen last weekend, on the occasion of their fourth wedding anniversary.

For what was supposed to be their first conversation in four months, Brittney Griner called the U.S. Embassy in Russia 11 times to patch the call through to Cherelle Griner, but no one was at the embassy to pick up the phone. Cherelle Griner initially assumed the Russian government hadn’t allowed her wife to call. Yet it wasn’t Russian President Putin’s venality but the U.S. embassy’s incompetence that blocked their efforts to speak.

"I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up," Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press in an interview. "I'm pretty sure I texted BG's agent and was like: 'I don't want to talk to anybody. It's going to take me a minute to get my emotions together and just tell everybody I'm unavailable right now. Because it just knocked me out. I wasn't well, I'm still not well."

The State Department finally issued a statement two days later: "We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error.”

Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press, "I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. 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? Because that's a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.''

In her MSNBC interview with Reid, Cherelle Griner said, “At this point, it almost feels like, you know, they're indirectly telling me 'no.' It almost feels like indirectly they've told us as a family they will not meet with us despite the fact that everybody is saying when I do speak to people 'BG's a top priority. We know she's wrongfully detained. We're doing everything.' But the people that have the highest power, they have not spoken to me and my family."

Where is Biden? Where is Secretary of State Anthony Blinken?

Where is Biden? Where is Secretary of State Antony Blinken? These are the questions being asked not just by Cherelle Griner, but also by people in and outside the WNBA who are bereft over the Brittney Griner’s continued imprisonment. Russian officials say they caught her in an airport outside Moscow with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

Cherelle Griner was mostly silent in March and April, as she followed the advice of the State Department whose officials told that her they were negotiating through back channels. But after the State Department said Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained,” she began spearheading a public campaign to free her wife.

The WNBA players union, dozens of organizations, including the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, signed onto a letter this week demanding that the Biden administration do more to facilitate Griner’s freedom. In addition, WNBA star players such as Breanna Stewart and the WNBA Players Association have taken to social media to pressure Biden to step up negotiations.

We’ve seen protests on Brittney Griner’s behalf in New York, Washington and other cities. People are shouting out her name in the hopes that their cries will land upon Biden’s ears.

The federal government insists publicly that it is doing all it can, and Blinken, at least, has spoken with Cherelle Griner. But, as Cherelle Griner said, the absence of embassy staffers to facilitate her wife’s call does indeed raise the question of how much focus Biden has put on Griner’s release.

Meanwhile the WNBA is demonstrating its focus and resolve. Griner will be an “honorary All-Star starter,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Wednesday. “During each season of Brittney’s career in which there has been an All-Star Game, she has been selected as an All-Star,” Engelbert said. “It is not difficult to imagine that if BG [Griner] were here with us this season, she would once again be selected and would, no doubt, show off her incredible talents. So, it is only fitting that she be named as an honorary starter today and we continue to work on her safe return to the U.S.”

It’s a small gesture but critical for someone who has been used as a political pawn by Putin, who dangles her in front of cameras every few weeks as a taunt not only to Biden but all who want Griner home safely. We cannot exactly picket Putin’s house. But we can raise hell in our own country to demand that they step up diplomatic efforts to bring Brittney Griner home. Or at the very least, to staff their embassy so that when Brittney finally gets a chance to speak to Cherelle, somebody picks up the damn phone.