UNCASVILLE, Conn. — It started with a few isolated yells of “BG!” echoing from throughout Mohegan Sun Arena during a 42-second moment of silence for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star sentenced Thursday to 9½ years in prison in Moscow.
Soon the scattered yells became a loud chant of “Bring her home!” repeated about a dozen times, bursting through the silence. In the stands, fans interlocked arms; at center court, the teams did the same.
The 42 seconds were over then. But the plight of Griner, who has been detained in Russia since she was accused of illegally smuggling vape cartridges containing cannabis, remained the focus here.
The ruling did not surprise legal analysts who have followed the case and know the Russian criminal justice system, but it still unnerved people inside and out of the arena.
It was “a really emotional day for our whole team, but we know we weren’t hanging our hopes on the Russian legal system,” Mercury Coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters before the game. “We just want her home.”
Mercury star Skylar Diggins-Smith said reporters’ questions about “our real-life friend” languishing behind bars “just add to our trauma.” “Nobody wanted to even play today,” said Diggins-Smith.
In the stands, Ellyn Ruthstrom, from Melrose, Mass., said she and her partner, Kara Ammon, spoke about the particular risks Griner faces in Russia when they heard about the verdict earlier Thursday.
“We were just talking about how horrible it is for a gay woman of color” to be imprisoned in Russia, Ruthstrom said. “She’s a political pawn.” Ammon and Ruthstrom praised the WNBA for keeping Griner’s predicament at the forefront.
As news of the sentencing spread, messages of “Free BG” echoed on Twitter and among sports stars.
Erica Wheeler of the Atlanta Dream tweeted: “My heart goes out to BG’s family and her wife! Today hit a little different man like that’s our sister! I can’t even imagine how her family feels! I pray God is protecting her mental but more importantly keep fighting BG. … gotta bring you home!”
Lexie Brown, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, tweeted, “Anyone that goes back to Russia to play is insane.” She added, “this is breaking my heart seeing her right now.”
The commissioners of the NBA and WNBA shared a joint statement. “Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained,” Adam Silver and Cathy Engelbert said. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
Terri Carmichael Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, called the decision “unjust. It is a terrible blow. Whatever conversations [Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken] and his Russian counterpart need to have, we trust that they are having them with all deliberate speed. Because it’s time. It’s just time.”
Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Moscow, called Griner’s conviction and sentencing “a miscarriage of justice.” She spoke briefly, saying, “Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden’s national security team and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Ms. Griner home safely to her family and friends.”
Biden called for her immediate release, saying: “Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Can’t just play with people’s lives like that. Sickening. Lord, cover Brittney & her family. FREE BG ‼️— Arike Ogunbowale (@Arike_O) August 4, 2022
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, called for a deal to be “done swiftly” to free her and noted that American Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia. He and Griner have been mentioned as part of a prisoner exchange.
“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Colas said. “We appreciate and continue to support the efforts of [Biden and Blinken] to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home. Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the sole objective, and as such, we should use all available tools. We must remain focused and unified. This is a time for compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do.”
“BG is an American. BG is an Olympian. BG is an ALL-STAR. BG is a daughter, a wife, a friend,” tweeted Cari Champion, a former ESPN host. “BG is an American. BG IS IN A CAGE. BG is ours. Bring her home.”
FREE BG!!!!!!!!— Kahleah Copper (@kahleahcopper) August 4, 2022
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, called Griner a “political pawn” and continued to ask for permission to take a delegation of clergy to visit Griner to assess her health.
“The sentencing of Brittney Griner to nine years in prison is a moral outrage and a legal atrocity in any court in the world. In most places, including the United States, what she pled guilty to and was charged with would not even have merited a misdemeanor. It is shameful and a dark day when global athletics is subjected to politics and not due process,” Sharpton said.
“Let’s not forget Brittney Griner not only entertained and won the hearts of many Americans but for seven years entertained and won the hearts of many Russians as she played basketball there. Which is why her basketball coach and fellow players came and testified for her. She and Paul Whelan are clearly pawns in some global political chess game that has nothing to do with them. They should be immediately released.”
Free BG … let’s fight for her!!!!!!!— MeekMill (@MeekMill) August 4, 2022
Initially, negotiations for Griner’s release were conducted quietly, but the passage of time led to more public calls for her release. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has been increasingly outspoken in calling for Biden to take action, and the State Department reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist and perennial all-star with the Mercury, Griner played for UMMC Ekaterinburg during WNBA offseasons and called Yekaterinburg her “second home” Thursday. Moved by her relationship with her teammates and the growing popularity of the sport among young girls, she explained as she wept, “That’s why I kept coming back.”
BG❤️— Chelsea Gray (@cgray209) August 4, 2022
Now the focus turns to negotiations to get Griner released, which are complicated by a frosty relationship between the United States and Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. Last week, Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged him to accept a deal involving Griner and Whelan.
Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 and convicted of spying in 2020, has said he was framed. The United States has not indicated whether it would offer Russian Viktor Bout, an arms trafficker who was arrested in a U.S. sting operation in Thailand in 2008, in exchange for their release.
Cindy Boren reported from Washington. Steven Burkholder reported from Connecticut.
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