Safe return of 'unlawfully detained' star Griner is a win WNBA community deserves

The 26th season of the WNBA, which has created a blueprint for fighting anti-Black racism and has been vocal in supporting other marginalized communities, is playing without one of its greatest players: Phoenix Mercury's No. 42, Brittney Griner. 

Teams, players continue fight to free Mercury centre held in Russian detention

Brittney Griner, seen playing with the Phoenix Mercury, remains in detention by Russian authorities nearly three months after being arrested on Feb. 17 under suspicion of drug smuggling. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

While the NHL and NBA are deep into their playoff seasons, the WNBA just tipped off its 2022 season earlier this month.

The 26th season of this magnificent league, which has created a blueprint for fighting anti-Black racism and has been vocal in supporting other marginalized communities, is playing without one of its greatest players: Phoenix Mercury's No. 42, Brittney Griner. 

Griner was detained in Russia on Feb. 17 under suspicion of drug smuggling. Griner allegedly had cannabis oil in the form of vape cartridges in her bags. Her arrest was not made public for three weeks until the New York Times broke the news. Griner plays basketball for a team in Russia during the off-season and was returning from the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) world championship qualifiers with the U.S. national team.

It has been 89 days since Griner was detained. She faces up to a 10-year jail term if convicted. 

Griner has played with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia since 2016. She was not away from her wife by choice. Playing basketball in the off-season was something she had to do in order to make a living, like many of her teammates do. Playing in the off-season can garner up to four times their base salary in the WNBA and it has been reported that, aside from this incident, American players enjoy the experience. My colleague, Morgan Campbell, wrote an important piece in March detailing why Griner was there and why money (salaries and supporting women's sports) is a big part of this.

As the news spread that Griner was taken into custody, immediately there was concern — and rightly so. Griner is a Black, queer woman being detained in a country where LGBTIQ2S+ rights are shunned and athletes have reason to fear for their safety. Furthermore, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put them at the centre of the ire of the U.S. and many other nations. A criticism that will be carefully monitored as she sits in detention.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been implored by the WNBPA (the WNBA's players association) to act swiftly to bring Griner home. 

On May 3, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said: "The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner" after it concluded that she was "unlawfully detained."

But remarks without action become increasingly stressful, particularly when it was announced this past weekend that Griner's pre-trial detention has been extended for another month.

This news is disappointing and discouraging, and although Griner seems to be in good health from infrequent photos caught by Russian media, her emotional and mental well-being can't be determined.

Some have argued that she is being used as a political pawn as the timing of her detention seems too coincidental. She is a very recognizable athlete — a two-time Olympic gold medallist, Russian League and EuroLeague champion. She is a dunking phenom whose 2014 memoir, In My Skin: My Life On and Off The Basketball Court, was a bestseller and a great read filled with anecdotes and lessons for hoopers and non-hoopers alike. (Years ago, my daughter was gifted the book on her 14th birthday from a teammate on her rep basketball team.) Griner has been adored and respected in the basketball world for a long time. I can't imagine how badly she is missed in the league and in the locker room.

As I tune into WNBA games, I think of Griner but also her wife, Chantelle, and family who are undeniably devastated. And also her teammates. Coaches and players in the league have made posts on their social media using the hashtag #WeAreBG.

A Change.Org petition was created by basketball journalist Tamryn Spruill, demanding action from government officials to secure Griner's release. The petition was started a few days ago and has garnered over 135,000 signatures.

The women's basketball community is not a big one and the resilience and fortitude of the athletes are unprecedented. They want their sister, their teammate and their friend safely at home. 

Every team in the WNBA will have decals courtside with "BG #42" as they continue to send messages of support and of amplification to make sure that Griner is not forgotten and that her safety is paramount.

I also think of the players and the distress her detention is causing them. To have to lace up your kicks and take to the court but be missing your "big" is unfathomable. The women of the WNBA have advocated for Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police brutality and anti-Black violence. But advocating and hoping for the return of your beloved teammate while supporting her family, putting pressure on the State Department and keeping Griner's situation amplified requires a different level of processing and focus.

The players may be heavy-hearted but must play with a lightness of foot and speed. And playing is where they continue to honour Griner.

It will be another 30 days until we know what the next steps are, but I truly hope that Griner's return comes quickly. When she returns safely, it will be the best result imaginable for Griner's loved ones, the players and the community who all deserve and are desperate for this win.


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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