WNBA players have never worked just one job. For the women hoping to capitalize on dwindling financial opportunities, they take up a second gig playing overseas in international leagues to make up for paltry league salaries. For those hoping to balance a career and motherhood, a third as a parent and emotional laborer in between practice, travel, and games. For those looking to bolster the argument for league expansion and champion the case for pay equity in women’s sports, putting each generation of new players on their shoulders, a fourth as an activist and equal rights leader.
Now, as the WNBA enters the third week of its 26th season and the NBA continues into its postseason quest for manhood and greatness, yet another job waltzes to the front of the line: demanding Brittney Griner’s safe return. On the 88th day of Phoenix Mercury forward and Olympic medalist Griner’s detainment in Russia, it’s become increasingly clear that neither our politicians nor our big-bucks corporate shills have made any significant headway in bringing Griner safely home.
Earlier this month, the US State Department announced that it had reclassified Griner’s detention as “wrongful detainment,” an acknowledgment that she was being held because she was an American citizen and as part of a tit-for-tat political system. On Friday, the unthinkable: ESPN reported that Griner’s lawyer had announced that she would remain in Russia for at least another month. Her pretrial detention period had been extended for another 30 days. Reports later surfaced from Russian state news agency TASS stating that Russian officials were hoping to exchange Griner for a Russian being held by the US for “financing terrorism” (though American officials told ESPN those reports were likely pressure tactics). Then, a scarring photo of Griner appeared from her hearing in Moscow: handcuffed, head hung, shoulders slouched, and a hoodie obscuring her face and dreadlocks.
That day, a source who works regularly with the WNBA and its players responded to a request I’d sent regarding an unrelated story hours later. She quickly apologized for the delay, adding that she “woke up to the BG news and my mind has been FUCKED since.”
It’s easier to make Brittney Griner’s pain invisible, less of a priority geopolitically or otherwise, when she herself is unseen. But to see her—really see her—being held against her will is to make her pain excruciatingly real. Returning to business as usual then, with cries for her rightful return sustaining a mid level buzz as opposed to an unrelenting scream, is to tell her that we care…just not enough to stop everything and bring her the fuck home.
On Sunday night, her initials, BG, could be seen floating atop the Phoenix Suns’ home court throughout Game 7 of the Western Semifinals between the Suns and Mavericks. In all 12 cities with WNBA franchises, arenas printed “BG42” on the court to keep her, and her absence in the league, top of mind. The Los Angeles Clippers shipped shoes to Phoenix to support one of Griner’s favorite charities. Chris Paul even showed up to a game last week sporting a BG t-shirt, and said to the press, “This ain’t even just an NBA or WNBA thing...I think everybody just wants her home. [Griner] is a huge part of the community here. We all support her [and] just want to try to get her home as soon as possible.” Jalen and Jacoby of ESPN+ pledged to continue speaking on Griner’s situation until she was safely returned home. And still, it’s not enough.
Griner’s name wasn’t emblazoned upon the NBA players’ jerseys, nor was there a ticker on TNT’s broadcast counting the days she’d been in detention. NBA players weren’t tweeting for her safe return. She was mentioned briefly in semifinals broadcast coverage, but there was no moment of silence, no video pleading for fans to get involved, and no call to action.
While coaches and referees trampled over her initials and the collective public mood shifted towards apathy, the WNBA players stomped forward for their BG. This weekend, the WNBA Players’ Association and its members officially cosigned a petition started by journalist Tamryn Spruill back in March, titled, “Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the U.S.” With 133,000 signatures and counting, the petition does not mince word, stating clearly that “pay inequity has led to Brittney Griner’s wrongful detention in Russia,” while urging lawmakers, the White House, and the Biden administration to “immediately address this human rights issue and do whatever is necessary to return Brittney home quickly and safely.”
Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm pleaded “@WhiteHouse, we are paying attention and we are counting on you.” Hall of Fame player and Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley begged ESPN, ABC, CNN, CBS, and other networks to create space on air for Griner’s story and to add a ticker counting the days she’s been wrongfully detained to their broadcasts. Los Angeles Sparks player Chiney Ogwumike demanded, “Enough is enough.”
Together, as the reeling and sadness shifts to anger and desperation, these women are working overtime to mount a coordinated effort, to move in one seamless formation, and to convince everyone—anyone who will listen—that demanding the safe return of Griner is not a charity case, but a mandatory fight for a human life, and these women cannot do this alone.
What a privilege it is for those who’ve been able to carry on with their lives without feeling Griner’s loss. That privilege is a uniquely American one: Living in an individualistic country that places profit above people and politicians above progress means that we do not bleed for one another. Instead, we bleed for others only when it’s convenient—not when it’s in the middle of the fight for abortion rights or in the middle of the fucking NBA semifinals or in the lead up to the disastrous-trending 2022 midterms. The fact that Griner is still in Russia tells us who and what we do or do not value, and today it is clear that we do not value Black women, queer women, women athletes, or women’s bodies. Carrying the burden of Brittney Griner’s absence on our shoulders is too heavy to bear, so we drop it and move on.
At this point, however, silence won’t cut it. Griner’s detention is white supremacy, is pay inequity, is homophobia, is misogyny, is the worst of us. But to those who know her, those who love her, and those who will stop at nothing to bring her home safely, Brittney Griner is the best of us. Bring her home.