The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the WNBA season begins, Brittney Griner’s absence should rattle the country

Brittney Griner has won two gold medals for the United States, including at the Tokyo Games in 2021. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
6 min

A somber WNBA season begins Friday night. Instead of looking at the running clock, you can measure the league’s time by counting the days Brittney Griner has spent in Russian captivity. She has been a prisoner for 78 now. Two years ago, at the start of the pandemic, the sport played an entire bubble season in 97 days.

What should be a wholly festive time is forced to seem funereal. In all 12 WNBA cities, arenas will feature “BG42” court decals to maintain awareness of Griner, whose detainment is now deemed wrongful by the U.S. government. It’s not often that a common method of memorialization is used to honor a person still with us. Sometimes, though, her situation feels that dire.

As our nation shifts to a more vigorous negotiation of Griner’s release, the case is no longer a geopolitical quandary in which the best option is to stay quiet and move gingerly through the Russian legal system. That may have been the initial, diplomatic approach to trying to free Griner, but as she awaits a May 19 hearing, the United States has seemingly acknowledged the hopelessness of justice.

Griner’s freedom may turn into a crude issue of value. How much does she mean to America? And what can Russia get in return for her release? If so, there is no longer a credible reason not to make Griner’s predicament what it has yet to become: the biggest story in American sports.

Brittney Griner ‘wrongfully detained,’ U.S. says, signaling strategy shift

For months, we have debated why Griner’s case hasn’t been handled with more obvious urgency, but the conversation usually morphs into one about the hierarchy of sports stardom. What if she were Patrick Mahomes? Or Kevin Durant? Or, OMG, Tom Brady? What would the priority level be then? It’s the same generalized sports banter that gets us nowhere. Although the stakes are much higher than usual, there’s also a familiar, problematic thread of gender comparison that, no matter the intention, inevitably relegates women to secondary status in a male-dominant sports world.

The hypotheticals don’t matter. They wind up only stretching out an argument that instead needs to focus on what’s real: Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the defining post players in the sport’s history, is a political prisoner. It’s incumbent on the State Department to do everything within reason to bring her home, and if anyone in the U.S. government needs to understand the urgency, there should be an astonishing number of sports fans applying pressure with their interest.

In a different world, in a better world, Griner would be celebrating her 10th pro season, thinking about all she has accomplished at age 31 and looking forward to the final stages of her prime. However, the seven-time WNBA all-star was arrested in February at an airport near Moscow for allegedly bringing vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country. Details about her case are limited, but the United States declared this week that Griner has been “wrongfully detained,” validating suspicions that there’s more to the incident during a time of increased U.S.-Russia tension.

And so the WNBA has met its most formidable, most vexing and most personal challenge. In its first 25 seasons, the league fought to have its value recognized and its business sustained. Despite plenty of turbulence, the results are tangible: The women are here, still fighting, still growing the sport and finally stepping into their power by raising their voices on social issues. It’s a league and a movement, and while it is not yet swimming in profits, it has made a clear impact as a progressive league that does its finest off-court work championing civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights and reproductive rights.

Those issues are full of endless battles. Year 26 starts amid controversy over a leaked Supreme Court document that indicated the justices are preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade. The league, individual teams and several players already have taken a strong stance supporting a woman’s right to choose. All the while, they’re still thinking about Griner.

“It is time for her to come home,” Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players union, wrote in a tweet.

With the games beginning and the United States handling the case more aggressively, you can expect the players to be a little more vocal about Griner. And perhaps they can channel some of their 2020 energy, when they came together in Florida to play that pandemic season and dedicated it to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, attempting to raise awareness about police violence against Black women.

During a year of rampant and often perfunctory displays of activism in sports, the WNBA was an authentic force. This time is different, however: foreign turf, uncertainty over how to engage and the need for an even larger base to care about one of their own — and keep caring.

With a WNBA star detained, tensions brew over players going overseas

So we’re back to that question of value. Over the past few years, starting with the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement in 2020, the sport has had to deal with its own existential questions about its business model, player salaries and what it will take to make the WNBA a priority over lucrative opportunities overseas. Even with the new CBA and enhanced salaries, it’s an unfinished debate that just turned downright scary because Griner was arrested while returning to the Russian team for which she plays during the WNBA offseason.

Her case can be seen as a bizarre outlier. But it triggered many players who compete overseas before returning to the WNBA during the summer months. They all have reacted the same: “It could have been me,” they say. They aren’t exactly talking about getting busted with hashish oil. But there is a real fear of encountering career-altering hardships — injuries, usually, such as when Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart tore her right Achilles’ playing in Russia three years ago — because they’re forced to play more basketball than they should to maximize their earnings.

What does it mean to us, as Americans, to own the greatest women’s basketball tradition in the world? If this is a high-profile hostage negotiation, that’s the pointed question that needs to be answered. It’s not a question that should be left to assumption or hope. It’s not a question the WNBA can answer with the force of its will.

For this one, it would speak volumes if our motley, divided sports world rallied to leave no doubt. If the “Free Brittney” sentiment is limited to “BG42” decals and WNBA passion, then it would be another sign that the so-called power of sports is mostly a sham used for greed.

The WNBA season is about to tip off, and an icon in the sport sits in jail, wrongfully detained, hoping that she has given enough of herself for society to care. Her life has to be worth more than dunks and gold medals.

Read more on the WNBA

Detained in Moscow: Brittney Griner will stand trial starting July 1 in Russia. The U.S. government is characterizing Griner’s arrest as a “wrongful detainment.” As the WNBA season continues, Griner’s absence should rattle the country, writes Jerry Brewer. Why do WNBA stars flock to Russia? It’s not just the money.

League growth strategy: As the WNBA looks to expand, players are hoping for owners who want to spend. The league added $75 million to its coffers through a capital raise. However, the lack of roster spots is an expanding problem.

Washington Mystics: Elena Delle Donne is competing against herself now.

Profile: Chiney Ogwumike is on a tireless quest to have it all. The Los Angeles Sparks forward and ESPN personality who just turned 30 has a checklist for her next 10 years that includes marriage, children and launching a media business.

Candace Buckner: “While men routinely coach women at basketball’s highest levels, the same opportunities do not exist, yet, in reverse.”