Brittney Griner, who has been held in Russia since February without so much as a phone call home, had her detainment extended this month, the third time since she was taken into custody. This extension lasts until July 3 when it seems likely it will be extended again, and again, until Griner’s trial, a move typical of Russian courts.
Updates about Griner’s case, and Griner herself, have been slim given the public nature of her case and the furtive nature of the Kremlin and intensified with the ongoing war in Ukraine. The biggest development thus far came on May 3, when the U.S. government adjusted its stance on Griner’s confinement to “wrongfully detained.”
That move meant the government would seek to negotiate her return rather than wait for a trial date, but there has been no more news on the situation since. The most recent, and cruelest update came over the weekend of Juneteenth, when Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, were scheduled to have their first phone call since her detainment but never connected due to the phone line at the American embassy in Moscow not being staffed.
To most of us, a phone call is something we’ve grown prone to delaying. To Cherelle Griner, it was a lifeline that she tried to dial 11 times over several hours.
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home?” Griner told the Associated Press, “Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
More than hitting the nail on the head, Cherelle Griner summarized exactly the still glaring issue when it comes to Griner and her detainment — that the onus remains on those closest to her, that the urgency in freeing her has still not matched what it would if a male athlete of her stature and profile were in the same circumstances.
Initially, the tone and messaging around advocating for Griner’s release was demure. Her colleagues in the WNBA were encouraged not to speak up over concerns that it would lead Russia to intensify the case. But since Griner was already the most high-profile American to be detained by Russia, it’s become clear that staying quiet would do nothing to change the optics.
Since then, her teammates and friends in W, as well as NBA players and other pro athletes, have championed a renewed, public push to use their voices and platforms to advocate for Griner’s release. Unfortunately, Griner’s detainment is still thought of as an issue mainly concerning the WNBA, and that any publicity around it is theirs to sustain.
Advocacy and the WNBA go back to the league’s foundation. Sheryl Swoopes, the first player ever to be signed by the league, returned to play six weeks after she gave birth, setting a precedent that having kids wasn’t something that would automatically derail a woman’s career. Swoopes also came out in 2005, then the highest-profile female athlete to do so.
Maya Moore, a 2x MVP, took a two-season sabbatical in 2019 to advocate for Jonathan Irons, who’d then spent 22 years in prison wrongfully convicted of a burglary and assault. Moore’s advocacy helped get Irons’ conviction overturned. The Atlanta Dream banded together to oust former team owner and former state senator, Kelly Loeffler, after Loeffler criticized the team for wearing Say Her Name shirts supporting justice for Breonna Taylor. The Dream got behind efforts to elect Ralph Warnock, and former Dream player, Renee Montgomery, became part of an investor group that purchased the team.
These actions are the tip of the iceberg. From renegotiating their CBA to increase salaries across the board to being the first women’s professional league in the U.S. to guarantee a fully paid maternity leave, to their continued leadership in the social justice movement, the WNBA has long led by example. In doing so, they’ve encouraged other female athletes and leagues to advocate in the same way.
The U.S. women’s soccer team recently forced a first-of-its-kind CBA with the United States Soccer Federation and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association to mandate equal pay for women in the sport. That includes appearance fees and bonuses being equalized across all teams, and the men’s and women’s teams splitting FIFA World Cup prize money equally. For context, FIFA allotted $400 million in total prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup, while for the entire 2019 women’s tournament just $30 million was set aside.
One of the biggest drawbacks in how readily and well many female pro athletes have used their platforms to advocate for themselves and others is that when it comes to issues affecting the most marginalized groups in sports, there is now an expectation that women should be the first to sound the alarm. The ongoing contention with governing bodies in sports and transgender athletes, for example, has found its most vocal champions in the women’s game.
After FINA, the International Swimming Federation, recently announced it would ban transgender women from competing in women’s categories and would establish a new “open competition” category, it was Australian pro swimmer Maddie Groves who slammed the ruling, noting that it would ostracize an already marginalized group. The FINA ruling comes after transgender athlete Lia Thomas won the NCAA Division 1 national championship this year in a 500-yard freestyle race. Other leagues, like the International rugby league, have followed suit.
Title IX — the federal legislation mandating equal opportunities for men’s and women’s participation in sports — turns 50 on June 23. In a recent interview with TIME around the anniversary, U.S. soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, criticized the fear-mongering driving rulings like FINA’s decision.
“Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, are dominating in every sport, are winning every title,” Rapinoe said, “I’m sorry, it’s just not happening.
On the note of advocacy, Rapinoe said that while women’s sports have much ground to make up, there’s an opportunity to innovate that’s much different from men’s leagues.
“We should use the benefit of hindsight, and we should understand what’s good to take, and where can we innovate, where can we move forward. It’s going be difficult in a lot of ways for men’s sports to be as nimble as women’s sports, even though we don’t have a fraction of the money or the budget or the influence or the power,” she said, “We can be nimble and we can be really innovative and we can go into new frontiers probably a lot quicker than men’s sports can. I don’t think my imagination can even capture what’s possible with women’s sports in the next 50 years.”
Sports are politics. From Title IX, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos being banned from the U.S. Team and the Olympics after raising their fists in protest on the podium in 1992, to the crystallization of this reality in Griner’s ongoing detainment in Russia.
There is an ongoing, albeit archaic notion that sports are better when they abstain from the controversial, but it’s typically only been those who benefit from oppressive systems that see sports as some sacred, separate world, untouched and untroubled by the social, economic and political concerns of the everyday. To move beyond the field or court, to get past idling platitudes into urgency where it’s needed — as in Griner’s very real-life, isolating detainment — we need only to look to leagues like the W that have wholly embraced that charge.