The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brittney Griner is still locked up, and our tweets and T-shirts can’t free her

Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Monday. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

In the clip, Brittney Griner towers over everyone and still looks helpless. She’s a 6-foot-9 prisoner, wrongfully incarcerated as Russia’s pawn, handcuffed to and trailing a smaller officer, who cannot even reach the giant basketball player’s shoulder. So Griner has to crouch a little, lean closer to the shackles and take small, quick steps to keep up with her jailer’s strides.

Griner was in a Moscow suburb, being led into a courtroom where she’ll never find real and actual justice. Within the gallery of onlookers, there was at least one news photographer snapping away. Just for an instant, she was captured in a state of surprise — her eyes wide open, her brows raised above her wire-rimmed glasses. There’s no telling why Griner flashed that expression. But a world away, that photo came across our phones, Twitter feeds and television screens.

We’re stressed out and fired up. We yearn for someone to do something. We cry for justice. And yet we can’t do a thing.

Brittney Griner will stand trial starting July 1 in Russia

All our American devices, the ones we rely on for our demands to be heard and seen — to express our freedoms, rights and frustrations — cannot #FreeBrittney. She remains locked away, probably unaware of how many of her fellow basketball players, and even concerned citizens, have rallied to her cause.

But beneath the impassioned shouts and silent prayers, there has been a sad realization. If we are indeed BG, as the T-shirt declares, then we are just as helpless as she is.

It stuns a U.S. resident that Griner, a winner at every level and a recognizable face in women’s basketball since her teen years, could face a decade in prison for allegedly entering Sheremetyevo International Airport with vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage. How can such a giant in her industry be caged for such a trivial matter? The unjust punishment boggles the mind.

But it’s just as difficult to accept how useless our American methods of protest have been in this situation.

We are quick to mobilize behind causes and believe there will be power in our numbers. And we expect results. On Tuesday, a popular rapper tweeted, then deleted, “why is no one talking about britteny griner,” misspelling her name while questioning what he perceived to be a lack of attention on her case. In truth, attention has surged since her February arrest. The frightening reality: That hasn’t led to any apparent progress.

But that hasn’t stopped the players of the WNBA, once again, from rushing to the rescue.

We’ve seen the lasting power when professional athletes put their jobs on the line to take up a cause — Curt Flood sacrificing his career to take on Major League Baseball’s reserve clause and birth a new era of athletic freedom, Arthur Ashe awakening to his power at the climax of his tennis career and advocating for social justice. Still, no group of athletes has demonstrated the fearlessness of WNBA players.

The women protested police brutality during the playing of the national anthem before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, squared up against a sitting senator — and won — then moved to the front lines for vaccine advocacy when several of their male counterparts, who have larger platforms, declined that responsibility.

For their sister, WNBA players are no longer remaining silent over concerns of potentially hurting her case. But even their attempts have not expedited any more obvious urgency from the U.S. government to secure her release.

And so we wait, imagining what else and what more we could do.

Griner will stand trial beginning Friday, but her detention already has been extended another six months. During this time, we’ll see her being led into court, lowering herself and wearing handcuffs. It will be like watching a movie and holding out hope for a plot twist when you’re already pretty sure of the ending.

Beneath the sympathy for her is a selfish streak of sadness, almost too embarrassing to say out loud. The thought consumes anyway: If the 31-year-old is convicted — and there’s a significant chance she will be — her playing days would be over.

She has been dunking with athletic ease since she was a high school student. As a junior at Baylor, she became the first Division I player — man or woman — to record 2,000 points and 500 blocks in a college career. She went on to win a WNBA championship and two Olympic gold medals. Still, how many of us have actually witnessed Griner on the basketball court?

How few of us have purchased tickets and tuned in to the games of a generational star? If more of us had watched, would she and her peers not have needed to supplement their salaries overseas, in places such as Russia?

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

She is a marvel we may never see again — and, sadly, one we didn’t fully appreciate during the apex of her career. Our full-throated support might not be enough to fix that mistake.

Her wife does interviews and shares the maddening story of the botched telephone call on the date of their fourth wedding anniversary. We tweet support, but our comfort toward her feels futile.

Her teammates and peers across the WNBA wear those T-shirts and play on surfaces that display her initials. We salute or even join in with the efforts, but our cheers sound hollow.

Her government says it prioritizes the security of U.S. citizens abroad and promises to press for her release. We hear the words, but our trust in this process wanes every day — 132 days and counting — in which Griner has been kept away from her family, her friends and her career.

Though protest is encoded in our culture — a language we share even when we divide into separate battlegrounds — our weapon of choice isn’t denting the impermeable Russian armor that surrounds her. Our blaring frustrations and accusatory social media posts have accounted for so little, if anything, for Griner.

She is so accessible to us, in quick video clips and tiny frozen images, yet we can’t help her.