For two months now, the reaction of the sports world to the disappearance of basketball star Brittney Griner and then imprisonment in a Russian prison for allegedly possessing hashish oil has been almost silent. For two months we heard that the State Department would handle this. For two months, we have heard that we will let the Russian judicial system work its course, despite the broken political friendship between the Putin regime and the United States. For two months we heard from the WNBA that it respects the wishes of the Greener family and is silent. For two months now, we have seen how most of the sports world, which would keep a candlelight vigil every day waiting for Tom Brady to spend years in a Russian labor camp, seems mild about the whole affair. People have been begging the league for two months to stop telling their players not to comment, that we need to raise Greener’s name and not bury our heads in the sand. For two months now, the argument has been that the U.S. government would put Greener’s freedom low on the priority list without pressure. Now that Greener’s trial on May 19 is looming, the strategy has finally changed. Finally there is a glimmer of hope.
The release of Trevor Reed from a Russian prison camp, incredible words written by Greener’s wife, Cherelle, and constant pressure from persistent fans and members of the mainstream media have led to change. The State Department reclassified Greener’s case into a case in which a person is illegally detained and is actually being held hostage. They took her case out of the consulate, which was just trying to make sure Griner was not harassed while behind bars – an important task, but not the path to freedom.
Late Monday, a State Department official emailed ESPN a statement that reads, “The State Department has determined that the Russian Federation has illegally detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. With this determination, Special Hostage Presidential Envoy Roger Carstens will lead the Brittney Griner Inter-Agency Release Team. ”
This is extremely important. This means that the American State Department rejected the fear that raising the name Griner from her would become a political pawn in tense times. This means that Griner could be entitled to another prisoner replacement, the same method by which Trevor Reed was released. This means that the WNBA can stop pretending that Griner is an invisible hostage and do what it does so well: speak up, be heard, and use its cultural capital to push Griner’s case firmly into the public domain. This means that the rest of the sports world can be held responsible for their silence. The weight of this should not be solely on WNBA players. The whole sports world – the media, the players, the directors – have to raise her name and say, “Free Brittney Griner.”
The WNBA players’ union gained the upper hand. Nneka Ogwumike, president of the union, said in a statement posted on social media: “It has been 75 days since our friend, teammate, sister Brittney Griner was illegally detained in Russia. It is time for him to return home … Having learned that the US government has now established that BG has been illegally detained, we hope that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful. ”
Then on Tuesday, the WNBA announced it would keep Griner “at the forefront of what we do”. At home, every WNBA team will have a sticker with Grinera’s initials, next to her number 42. (The NBA should at least do the same for the duration of the playoffs.) But these desperately needed actions must be viewed only as a starting point. In just two weeks, without prompt intervention, Brittney Griner will be in a Russian courtroom, threatened with five years in a labor camp and 10 years behind bars. We start late and it’s a shame, but it’s not the time to regret that fact. It’s time to do everything we can to ensure Brittney Griner, a basketball icon and political prisoner, returns home.