The N.B.A. is a $10 billion corporation that has the ability and reach to advertise not only its teams and players but to impress discussion and debate around social issues. It has used that influence most prominently to fight racism in the USA.
Yet when it has come to Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. star who has been detained in Russia since February, the N.B.A.’s teams have been mostly absent from the general public campaign for her release. The N.B.A. founded the W.N.B.A. and still owns about half of it, however the N.B.A. has been relatively muted outside of stories conferences as Griner’s family, her agent and the ladies’s league and its players have led the general public push for her freedom. N.B.A. players have also shown support.
Officials in each leagues said that they had stayed quiet at first on the urging of U.S. government officials who nervous that publicizing the case would backfire and jeopardize Griner even further. But even after the U.S. State Department said that it had determined she had been “wrongfully detained” and government officials began often speaking about Griner, the N.B.A. and team owners remained mostly quiet, fueling sentiments that the case has not gotten the form of highlight Griner’s supporters have demanded.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver has said publicly that the league and its teams are using their influence and connections to assist Griner in ways the general public doesn’t see. It’s difficult to say whether or not they are doing enough when even experts in diplomacy disagree on what “enough” could be or if public or private advocacy could be more practical.
“There aren’t any easy answers,” said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist who runs a political risk research and consulting firm. He added: “Could the N.B.A. have done more? Yes, they may have.”
Then again, Bremmer said, pressure from the N.B.A. could prompt Russia to ask for more in a deal to release Griner. Experts have suggested that a prisoner swap could free Griner.
“The way you value all of those things is dependent upon your perspective,” Bremmer said.
The N.B.A. players’ union said its members had been deeply concerned about Griner, and it pointed to players’ public shows of support at playoff games and award shows and on social media. Silver and W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert have said that N.B.A. owners also care but have kept their advocacy out of the general public eye. The Latest York Times contacted owners of all 30 N.B.A. teams — directly or through representatives — and none agreed to be interviewed about Griner.
Through a spokesman, Silver declined to be interviewed for this text, but in a press release he reiterated his public comments that the league had been “actively engaged” with government officials and experts.
“The N.B.A. and its teams are also using their influence to attract attention to Brittney’s situation, but ultimately it is a matter to be resolved by the USA government on account of the intense and complicated geopolitical issues at play,” Silver said within the statement.
The nuance of the league’s position isn’t lost even on those that are most intimately aware of what it means to be wrongfully detained abroad. Consider Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post opinion author who was detained in Iran for a 12 months and a half on spurious charges and freed in a prisoner swap in 2016.
He prepared to query Silver in June before the N.B.A. finals at a news conference, one in every of the few the commissioner gives within the season.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
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Why was she in Russia? Griner was in Russia playing for a global team through the W.N.B.A. off-season. Trading rest for overseas competition is common among the many league’s players for a lot of reasons, but often the most important motivation is money.
Does this have anything to do with Ukraine? Ms. Griner’s detention comes during an inflamed standoff between Russia and the USA over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however it continues to be unclear whether Russia might need targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the USA.
“I desired to put him on the spot,” Rezaian said of Silver. “‘As an organization, what are you doing for this worker of yours?’”
But before he got a likelihood, Silver beat him to it, saying that the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. were working with the U.S. government and out of doors experts to attempt to expedite Griner’s release. Rezaian said he thought that Silver’s remarks were forceful and that speaking about Griner before being asked had been smart.
“I believed it was wonderful that the commissioner used that moment of arguably his biggest platform of the 12 months, or one in every of them, to call attention to the case,” Rezaian said. “If he can do this then, three and a half months into her detention, he could have done it earlier.
“But I do know they were being advised against doing it earlier. I don’t blame anybody for that. There just isn’t an official handbook to cope with what to do when your beloved or worker gets taken hostage by a hostile state.”
Griner, 31, has been detained since Feb. 17 after Russian customs officials said they found hashish oil in a vape cartridge in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Her trial began July 1, and she or he pleaded guilty on July 7. She said she didn’t intend to interrupt the law as she traveled to play for a Russian women’s basketball team through the off-season from her W.N.B.A. team, the Phoenix Mercury.
Her next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. If she is formally convicted, which experts said had been likely even before she pleaded guilty, Griner could withstand 10 years in a penal colony. The U.S. State Department said it will work to barter her release whatever the end result of the trial.
Her public support has remained strong, despite her guilty plea.
“I get asked this query on a regular basis — ‘Has the N.B.A. been helpful?’” Engelbert said. “Extremely helpful. We share a brand. We have now N.B.A. after our name. N.B.A. team owners have reached out to me personally: ‘What can we do to assist with Brittney?’”
Engelbert said that an N.B.A. owner had connected her with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a unit of the State Department that handles the cases of Americans deemed wrongfully detained, even before Griner had been provided that designation.
Negotiations to secure the discharge of prisoners abroad are sometimes conducted quietly. It’s unclear what the N.B.A.’s role has been in applying pressure to government officials or assisting Griner’s family, but Engelbert said Silver had been personally involved in making phone calls to government officials on Griner’s behalf.
By the point the State Department announced it had determined that Griner had been wrongfully detained, the W.N.B.A. season was about to start, but just eight N.B.A. teams were still competing within the playoffs.
“It takes some time to get to the conclusion that the individual that you’re attempting to influence is the president of the USA,” Rezaian said. “Because they’re the just one who’s within the position to make the sorts of concessions and decisions to make concessions that can free any person.”
He added later, “People come home when it becomes politically costly for a president for them not to come back home.”
The W.N.B.A.’s teams have honored Griner in some ways, including fund-raisers, court decals and T-shirts, and her family will still receive her full Mercury salary this season. Some N.B.A. players have spoken about her or worn clothing that drew attention to her detainment. The N.B.A.’s Phoenix Suns, who own the Mercury, added a decal to their court and have posted about Griner on their social media accounts, but few N.B.A. teams have made many vocal or public shows of support.
Experts are divided on the impact of public pressure. Some imagine it worsens Griner’s situation by giving the Russian government more leverage in negotiations. One Russian official said the publicity round her case was creating “interference” in making a deal.
N.B.A. team owners haven’t been a part of the general public campaign. At a news conference through the summer league in Las Vegas this month, Silver said that Griner’s situation was not on the agenda through the league’s board of governors meeting but that individual owners had spoken to him about her.
The Times then contacted at the very least one owner from each team. Eleven representatives declined on behalf of homeowners, including one who wouldn’t even pass on the request. One spokesman said the team’s owner was on vacation, and 16 teams didn’t respond. Two owners responded directly.
“I can say that I actually have complete confidence that the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. league offices are doing every little thing of their power,” Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, said in a text message.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
The Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to be interviewed but said by email, “I do hope she gets out soon.”
Five N.B.A. teams — in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. — own W.N.B.A. teams. Owners for those teams declined to comment, but each of those W.N.B.A. teams has publicly supported Griner.
Engelbert said the N.B.A. had not asked team owners to avoid talking about Griner. She is a component of the N.B.A.’s senior leadership team and reports to Silver.
“The suggestion has been to support the administration and the State Department within the work that they’re doing on this complex situation to get Brittney home,” Engelbert said.
Players have shown their support. During an N.B.A. players’ union meeting in May, Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time N.B.A. All-Star who spent last season with the Lakers, said the players should use the finals to spotlight Griner.
On June 2, the day of Silver’s N.B.A. finals news conference, Anthony posted a video on Twitter of himself discussing Griner. He has 9.2 million followers.
“I wanted to make use of my voice to rally the basketball community,” Anthony said in a press release to The Times.
At an N.B.A. finals practice two days after Anthony posted his video, nearly every member of the Boston Celtics wore a black T-shirt with orange lettering that said “We’re BG.” Grant Williams, a Celtics forward and vp of the players’ union, had the shirts shipped overnight for his teammates.
Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the N.B.A.’s biggest stars, have also spoken publicly about Griner.
Tamika Tremaglio, the manager director of the N.B.A. players’ union, said she had been involved with Terri Jackson, the manager director of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union, since just after news broke of Griner’s detention about how N.B.A. players could help.
When the N.B.A.’s union leaders met in Las Vegas this month, they asked for an update. Jackson, who was on the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game in Chicago, recorded a video that was shown to the N.B.A. players.
“You could possibly hear a pin drop,” Tremaglio said. “They were so pensive by way of listening and hearing and understanding what was happening. It’s something that we as a union also support the ladies. That is something we were critically concerned about, too.”
Rezaian said public displays of support are vital.
During his 544-day detention in Iran, a few of his most hopeful moments had come when he had heard that folks were speaking about him, whether it was someone from The Washington Post or President Barack Obama.
“That form of thing just floods you with a way of being alive and in addition of power,” Rezaian said. “The partitions could be up around you, and you possibly can’t break them down, but you’re still there. You continue to count. And individuals are doing what they will for you.”