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The W.N.B.A. Strikes an Uneasy Silence Over Brittney Griner


PHOENIX — When will Brittney Griner be let out?

That painful query hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just because it is prone to hang over the approaching W.N.B.A. season.

Last week, at a house preseason game pitting Phoenix against the Seattle Storm, hip-hop blared and gyrating dance squads revved up the gang. When the teams took the court, the public-address system crackled with the names of among the most well-known players in women’s basketball. Sue Bird. Breanna Stewart. Tina Charles. They were joined by the Mercury’s 39-year-old virtuoso, Diana Taurasi, who was in street clothes for the preseason game but who plans to be ready when the regular season begins Friday.

Griner, the Mercury’s seven-time All-Star center, is not going to. Since February, she has been in Russian custody after customs officials at a Moscow area airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Her glaring absence struck an ungainly note. On the mammoth screen looming over the court in Phoenix, Griner’s image flashed alongside her teammates’ in promotional videos. Dozens of fans in the gang wore Mercury jerseys emblazoned together with her name and number, 42.

This was the primary time the Mercury had played since Griner was taken into Russian custody, yet there was no official acknowledgment of her absence by the players, no moment of silence to reckon with the collective anguish for certainly one of the league’s most beloved performers, who is understood to teammates and fans as B.G.

The silence is by design.

The W.N.B.A. is probably essentially the most progressive and outspoken American sports league. Its players have long taken public stands on issues equivalent to race, gender equality, politics and reproductive rights. In the times after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, W.N.B.A. players boycotted games. Throughout the early, cloistered days of the pandemic, they wore black shirts that said, “Say Her Name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot and killed by the police in Louisville, Ky.

But with Griner detained in Russia, her whereabouts and specific details on how she is faring relayed only to an inner circle of friends, family and advisers, the league is taking a stealthier approach.

As an alternative of raising a ruckus, the players are quiet.

As an alternative of clamoring for change, they keep their mouths shut.

They’re following the lead of Griner’s advisers, who’ve determined it best to let behind-the-scenes diplomacy work. With Griner facing as much as 10 years in prison, they’ve reasoned the wisest move is to maintain a low profile at once. In the intervening time, it is smart, the reasoning goes, not to offer President Vladimir V. Putin leverage in using Griner as a bargaining chip in negotiations while his military wages war against Ukraine.

“We’re absolutely outspoken about every thing that we are able to possibly be,” Mercury guard Kia Nurse, who’s entering her fifth 12 months within the W.N.B.A., said on the team’s training facility last week. “But we’re also superb at admitting that we don’t know every thing, and we aren’t the experts on every topic.”

“We’re following the method,” Nurse said, before noting the week’s hopeful news. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that a former U.S. Marine, Trevor R. Reed, had gained his freedom in a prisoner swap after nearly three years of Russian detention.

Among the many Mercury players, Reed’s return delivered a fresh dose of optimism that Griner might be next.

However the deal for Reed also sparked renewed calls from activists outside her camp who wonder aloud whether enough is being done to bring Griner home. Why, they ask, wasn’t she included within the swap? Why is everyone within the league remaining so circumspect? Wouldn’t loud and visual protests for Griner help pressure some motion?

In Phoenix, greater than just a few fans told me they didn’t feel Griner’s case was getting enough attention. Or that if an N.B.A. star were in Russian custody — waiting for a hearing, as Griner is, and facing a possible lengthy prison sentence, as Griner is — the calls for his release could be thunderous, insistent and nonstop.

“Having her missing, it looks like we’re missing a limb,” said Dacia Johnson, an ardent Mercury fan who wore a Griner jersey. “And the way in which the team and league remain so quiet makes it worse. There was not one word about her originally of this game. I’m really upset about that.”

What if Devin Booker was in Russian custody, she wondered, referencing the high-scoring guard for the Phoenix Suns?

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 in the course of 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 largest motivation is money.

Does this have anything to do with Ukraine? Griner’s detention comes during an inflamed standoff between Russia and america over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however it continues to be unclear whether Russia might need targeted Griner as leverage against america.

“If this was Booker, and never a gay, 6-foot-9-inch Black female? If this was someone from men’s sports, I feel they’d have had something in his honor, even when it was a moment of silence.”

Johnson seemed as emotional about Griner because the player’s teammates, who looked stricken with sadness each time I brought up Griner’s name. Still, the Mercury players stuck to the script. They spoke of how much they love B.G. How special she is. How she is sort of a member of their family, and consistently of their thoughts and prayers. Behind careful words was raw pain.

“That’s my sister, so I really like her,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, who won gold alongside Griner ultimately summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Diggins-Smith’s straightforward words were weighted as her voice quaked with frustration and anguish shone in her eyes. She continued: “I take into consideration her daily, and I can’t wait till she gets back here with us.”

We’re in uncharted territory.

Because the season begins, the W.N.B.A. continues to be wrestling with ways to honor Griner that won’t hurt her cause. The league’s teams plan to expand Griner’s Heart and Sole charity, which provides shoes to those in need, beyond Phoenix. Other ideas are in consideration, too.

But fans like Johnson and her girlfriend, Autumn Gardner, want boldness from the league that has come to be known for it. Because the preseason game against the Storm wound toward its conclusion, a 4-point Mercury loss, Gardner did not only say Griner’s name. She yelled it. “B.G.!” she chanted, loud and insistent enough to succeed in right down to the court. “B.G.! B.G.! B.G.!”

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