UPDATE (Aug. 4, 2022, 11:27 a.m. ET): On Thursday, a Russian court found Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling and possession charges, and handed her a sentence of nine years in prison.
Where are the male athletes standing up for WNBA superstar Brittney Griner? The Phoenix Mercury center has been held in a Russian prison since February for, Russian officials say, being caught with vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis at a Moscow airport. Between Russia’s war on Ukraine and the near-complete breakdown of diplomatic ties between the United States and Russia, Griner has become a Russian pawn. And despite WNBA players showing solidarity with male athletes as they protested racist police violence, as the women’s league works to raise awareness for Griner’s plight, their male counterparts and the male-dominated sports media have been disturbingly quiet.
Despite WNBA players showing solidarity with male athletes as they protested racist police violence, as the women’s league works to raise awareness for Griner’s plight, their male counterparts have been disturbingly quiet.
Griner appeared in a Russian court May 13, but in a development that seemed as predictable as the setting sun, her pretrial detention was extended another month. The U.S. and Russia exchanged prisoners late last month, and experts say Russia still desires the release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, “the Merchant of Death,” who’s serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.
Russia is mercilessly allowing Griner to twist in the wind as she awaits a fate that could include a 10-year prison sentence. It is a dire situation, and the WNBA is fighting to get Griner home.
The league’s fight follows two months of silence requested by the U.S. State Department and Griner’s wife, Cherelle, as the U.S. attempted to negotiate with Russia. But now that the State Department has declared that Griner has been “wrongfully detained,” the players are speaking out.
Some of the most prominent athletes in the league — for example, Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart — are appearing on news programs, tweeting and speaking to reporters after games about Griner's plight. They are doing exactly what they should be doing: raising the temperature on the State Department and demanding that it use whatever back-channel options still remain with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime to “bring Brittney home.” In addition, the WNBA has a decal in tribute to Griner on every court and is donating to Griner’s charitable foundation.
But it looks like the men’s league and most sports media outlets cannot be bothered with what ought to be the biggest story in the sports world. As for sports media outlets, it’s hard not to conclude that just as they give women’s sports short shrift in their programming — less coverage, less debate, fewer highlights — so, too, have they made Griner’s story an afterthought. Do we doubt for a single, solitary second that if Tom Brady were in a Russian prison at such a perilous time that it wouldn’t be a daily story? Can anybody argue that there wouldn’t be a graphic on the screen keeping track of how many days he’s been in detention and separated from his family on the other side of the world?
While the inaction of mainstream sports media has been drearily predictable, the silence from male athletes has been most disheartening. The Phoenix Suns, who’ve been eliminated from the NBA playoffs were, by my count, the lone exception. Coach Monty Williams spoke out. Point guard Chris Paul showed up to a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks ready to discuss Griner.
“This isn’t just an NBA or WNBA thing,” Paul said. “I think everybody wants her home. She’s a huge part of the community here. We all support her and just want to try to get her home as soon as possible. It was all in support of BG. We miss her.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday he’s working with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert to win Griner’s release and that the NBA’s previous silence was advised by experts. But seemingly that’s no longer the advice, and, still, the NBA’s stars have been mostly silent.
Between 2012 and 2020 when male athletes spoke out against racist police violence in unprecedented numbers, WNBA players did more than offer support and solidarity: They were leaders. Colin Kaepernick protested racial injustice during the playing of the national anthem in August 2016, but WNBA players had protested racial injustice earlier that summer. When the sports world was reeling from the pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd, the women of the WNBA campaigned hard for the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who at the time was running against then-WNBA franchise owner and Donald Trump supporter Kelly Loeffler to represent Georgia in the Senate. It is not an exaggeration to say those WNBA activists played a role in tipping the entire balance of power by helping Democrats win a majority in the U.S. Senate.
It's not an exaggeration to say WNBA activists played a role in helping Democrats win a majority in the U.S. Senate.
Over the last few years, male athletes have given props to the athletes of the WNBA and reminded the public that the leadership of those women was indispensable. But true solidarity is a two-way street. Every male athlete who benefited from and praised the WNBA players’ leadership and courage should be showing leadership themselves and speaking up for Griner. Their seemingly blithe disregard is the ultimate disrespect.
There’s still time for the men in the sports world to change course, but if they don’t use their galactic platforms to amplify Griner’s case, they will be making a terrible choice. They may find themselves needing allies in the years ahead and wondering why the typically outspoken activists in the WNBA community are nowhere to be found.