MINNEAPOLIS — As the U.S. women’s national basketball team holds training camp this week in conjunction with the NCAA women’s Final Four, the absence of two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner looms large.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that anyone even remotely close to her or knows her or has played with her before doesn’t feel it,” said Kelsey Plum, who won Olympic gold with the three-on-three team. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I was just talking to [Breanna Stewart] the other day — Stewie’s like: ‘Every day, I just have a moment where I’m like, man, BG’s out on the other side, and there’s nothing [to do about it]. Can’t communicate with or anything like that.’
“So it’s been really hard, and I can’t imagine what her family [is going through].”
Griner plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason and was returning to Russia when she was arrested Feb. 17. Russian state news agency TASS recently reported that her detention was extended until May 19. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added another wrinkle to the situation; relations between the United States and Russia are particularly strained, with President Biden recently saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” U.S. and WNBA officials — and Griner’s family — have been reluctant to comment on Griner’s situation in hope of keeping it from becoming a celebrity-political cause, which could make it more difficult to obtain her release.
That has led to a delicate balance between people not wanting to speak publicly and others who feel the silence means Griner is not receiving enough support.
The WNBA regular season begins May 6.
A large number of WNBA players spend the offseason playing overseas to supplement their salaries, but some are wondering whether the risk is worth it in the wake of Griner’s detention. Aerial Powers used to play overseas but has stopped in the past few years.
“I’m guessing that some of them will be a little nervous,” Powers said. “Even when the news came out that people that were in her cell were also Americans, the first thing I thought was, ‘Dang, I wonder if their family even knew they were in there?’ ”
Olympic gold medalist and Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins was playing in Ukraine this offseason before the Russian invasion. The team played in Bulgaria for a week and then in Turkey for another before the squad was disbanded. Atkins called Griner’s situation “scary” and said it makes her consider additional factors moving forward.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a March 23 news conference that a U.S. Embassy official was granted a visit with Griner and that she “is doing as well as can be expected.”
“I’m just praying for her safety and her sanity, really,” Atkins said. “She’s just such a good human, man. BG’s such a dope person. I’m just [waiting] for her to return home, to see her smile, her charisma, just her being her. So I hope this experience doesn’t change who she is as a person.”
Atkins spent about four months in Ukraine and was hesitant to speak deeply about the war. She pointed out that her situation and experience differed from those of teammates and others who live in the besieged country.
“The Ukraine that I know and the Ukraine that’s being hurt and hatred toward today is not what I know,” Atkins said. “It’s not really my story to tell because I got to come home to my family. I have teammates that still don’t have a home. I have teammates that are living with friends. I have teammates that can never go back to their home.”
The situation again put the spotlight on WNBA salaries. The most recent collective bargaining agreement made more money available to players, but a disparity remains between what players earn domestically and what they can earn overseas.
“The league has been working toward supplementing that difference, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Plum said.
Read more about sports and social issues
“But while Osaka Inc. is thriving, Naomi, the woman, is hurting. Tennis doesn’t seem to be helping. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to keep trying — not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.” Read Candace Buckner on Naomi Osaka.
“I can’t escape into sports. Nor should I. I don’t even want to try, even during this most absorbing stretch of the sports calendar. March Madness for me is no competition for the real madness that, while overseas this time, seems oh so close.” Read Kevin B. Blackistone on the war in Ukraine.
“It was all true. The members of the women’s team had been wronged. For years, they had to play more, and win bigger, to be paid anything close to their male counterparts. They got less pay for better work.” Read Sally Jenkins on the USWNT settlement with U.S. Soccer.
“Who’s lying here? Probably, to some degree, both sides. The NFL expecting Snyder to stop lying, covering up, blocking and bullying is a little bit like expecting a poisonous cobra not to bite you. You are who you are.” Read John Feinstein on Daniel Snyder and the NFL.