The free Brittney Griner movement is gaining steam with everyone from WNBA players to the U.S. government. But how much of an impact will it have? The answer is complicated.
WASHINGTON — For the first six weeks Brittney Griner was in a Russian pre-trial detention facility, her family and representatives kept quiet as Griner faced drug charges that could keep her in prison for up to 10 years.
That changed once the United States Department of State classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May. Her wife Cherelle Griner and other family members became more vocal, sending a signal to other supporters that it was time to speak up.
Griner’s name, face and No. 42 jersey have appeared everywhere recently.
WNBA All-Stars wore her jersey to start the second half of the All-Star Game in Chicago earlier this month. Last week, a mural was unveiled in Washington, D.C., showing Griner, wearing her Team USA Olympic jersey, and 17 other “wrongfully detained” Americans.
Senators from both parties have called for her release. Stephen Curry wore her Phoenix Mercury jersey while hosting the ESPYs last Wednesday.
“We encourage the entire sports community to stay energized on her behalf,” Curry said onstage.
“The more we say her name,” Los Angeles Sparks guard and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike said standing next to Curry, “the louder our voices will be.”
While the public support has grown exponentially, there remains a question: Will it have an impact and is it enough to help bring her home? The answer is complicated.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said Cherelle Griner is currently not available for interviews.
“The support BG has been receiving from the athlete community speaks to the power of sport to unify, connect and inspire,” Kagawa Colas said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY Sports. “The athletes we have seen step up to advocate for BG represent a global community whose connections go beyond politics or global conflict.
“It’s an energy that will continue to build and it’s evidence of why the sanctity of sport should be celebrated and protected.”
Will the growing public clamor bring Griner home?
One example of where public pressure may have helped Griner’s situation was the decision to designate Griner as wrongfully detained, which made her case a priority within the State Department, said Brendan Dwyer, a professor in sports leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It’s hard to know what role it played in putting pressure on the U.S. government,” Dwyer told USA TODAY Sports, “but perception is reality sometimes.”
Nneka Ogwumike, Stephen Curry and Skylar Diggins-Smith share a powerful message about Brittney Griner.
“We cannot stop fighting for her. We cannot stop believing for her. And we will not stop hoping for the day when we can welcome her home safely.” pic.twitter.com/gsxFD0iUT8
— ESPN (@espn) July 21, 2022
Athletes have a rare power to use their voice and platform to raise awareness and change the national conversation, Dwyer added.
“This is one of the great things about sport — it galvanizes people in this way,” he said. “Hopefully this momentum stays.”
New York Liberty forward Jocelyn Willoughby said listening to Griner’s team and family dictates how the rest of the league acts.
“When they move,” Willoughby told USA TODAY Sports, “we move.”
“I think there’s been conversation and more people bringing awareness to the situation,” said Willoughby, who attended the mural unveiling ceremony last Wednesday. “At this point, we don’t know what’s going to be the needle that breaks the camel’s back.
“I think it definitely helps, but ultimately what’s going to change things? Don’t know. But we can do what we can and I think definitely keep the conversation going.”
Griner may be a polarizing player on and off the court, Dwyer said, but “athletes have been united in understanding what she’s going through is not right.”
He added: “And they’re going to continue to support her and I hope that support remains.”
A point of national pride
Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that the White House says bolstered efforts to bring hostages and wrongfully detained Americans home. But some families and experts feel it doesn’t go far enough.
“It should be a point of national pride to bring an American home,” said Diane Foley, the mother of slain journalist James Foley. “But it’s not.”
The family of ex-Marine Matthew Heath described his wrongful detention in Venezuela, where he has attempted to take his life while being held there since 2020.
“My dad is a living, breathing human being,” said Jessica Zambrano, whose father Jose Luis is also being held in Venezuela as part of the CITGO 6. “And not just a policy issue.”
Family members gathered last week at the mural unveiling for wrongfully detained Americans. The mural was organized by the Bring Our Families Home Campaign.
Meeting family members of other wrongfully detained Americans touched Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, she said.
“We got to put their names out there a little more,” Brondello said. “Because meeting the families, it makes it really real. This is a father, a brother, a son — all these different things — and hopefully they can all come home soon.”
Griner played for Brondello from 2014-21 with the Mercury.
“She’s one of my favorite players, because she’s very coachable. She wants to do whatever it is to be the best on the court, but it’s the stuff she does off the court — the fans that come up to her, she’s always giving them her time and giving back to the community,” Brondello said. “She’s just got this really big heart. I miss her hugs. I miss her smiles.”
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud assisted in pasting Griner’s portrait to the mural.
“You walk up there and feel nothing but sadness because it’s just a slap of reality,” Cloud told USA TODAY Sports. “This season doesn’t feel the same without her. It’s constantly in the back of our heads that we are missing one member of our family.”
Griner’s trial continued Tuesday outside Moscow.
Cloud said WNBA players and the basketball community are keeping Griner’s case in the spotlight.
“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get American people back on our soil,” she said. “So that falls on the Biden Administration to do their job and negotiate and get them home.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.