For two months, the response of the sports world to basketball star Brittney Griner’s disappearance and then jailing in a Russian prison for allegedly possessing hashish oil has been near silence. For two months, we heard that the State Department was going to handle it. For two months, we heard that we were going to let the Russian justice system run its course, despite the shredded political amicability between the Putin regime and the United States. For two months, we heard from the WNBA that it was respecting the wishes of Griner’s family and staying quiet. For two months, we’ve seen most of the sports world, which would have been holding daily candlelight vigils if Tom Brady were facing years in a Russian labor camp, seem blasé about the whole affair. For two months, people have been begging the league to stop telling its players not to comment, that we needed to raise up Griner’s name and not stick our heads in the sand. For two months, the argument has been that without pressure, the US government would have Griner’s freedom low on its priority list. Now, with Griner’s trial on May 19 looming, at long last there’s been a change in strategy. There is finally a modicum of hope.
The freeing of Trevor Reed from a Russian prison camp, the incredible words written by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and the continual pressure by tenacious fans and grassroots media members have produced change. The State Department has reclassified Griner’s case as one where a person has been wrongfully detained and is effectively being held as a political hostage. They have taken her case out of the consular’s office, which was doing little more than trying to ensure that Griner wasn’t being mistreated while behind bars—an important task, but not an avenue toward freedom.
Late on Monday, a State Department official emailed ESPN a statement, that read, “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”
This is extremely significant. It means that the US State Department has cast off the fear that raising up Griner’s name would make her a political pawn in tense times. It means that Griner could be eligible for another prisoner swap, the same method that freed Trevor Reed. It means that the WNBA can stop pretending that Griner is the Invisible Hostage and do what it does so well: speak out, be heard, and use its cultural capital to propel Griner’s case firmly into the public realm. It means that the rest of the sports world can be held to account for their silence. The weight of this should not be exclusively on WNBA players. The entire sports world—media, players, executives—needs to raise up her name and say, “Free Brittney Griner.”
The WNBA players union got a head start. Nneka Ogwumike, the union’s president, said in a statement posted to social media, “It has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home.… Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful.”
Then on Tuesday, the WNBA announced that it would keep Griner “at the forefront of what we do.” There will be a decal with Griner’s initials, along with her number, 42, on the home court of every WNBA team. (The NBA should at least do the same for the duration of the playoffs.) But these desperately needed actions must be seen as just a jumping-off point. In just two weeks, without swift intervention, Brittney Griner will be in a Russian courtroom, facing five years in a labor camp and 10 years behind bars. We are getting a late start and that is an outrage, but this is not the time to mourn that fact. It’s time to do all we can to ensure that Brittney Griner, basketball icon and political prisoner, comes home.