Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia weighs heavy on WNBA as new season starts

Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia weighs heavy on WNBA as new season starts

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Photograph: Matt York/AP

Every team begins its season hoping to win the championship, but that goal may appear inconsequential in this year’s WNBA when one of the league’s leading players, Brittney Griner, continues to languish in a Russian jail.

WNBA players are attempting to remain focused on the court, while worrying about Griner’s condition and any news of a potential release after she was detained over allegations she brought cannabis into Russia.

Courtney Vandersloot, a guard for the Chicago Sky, was Griner’s teammate in Russia at UMMC Ekaterinburg and learned about her detainment during a team meeting before the country invaded Ukraine in February.

“We had a team meeting with our GM, he told us that she had been picked up at the airport,” Vandersloot said at the Sky’s media day on this week. “I can’t put into words that moment learning that. How we felt for Brittney and how scared we were for Brittney. We are hoping that she’s OK mentally and physically. Hoping that she’s being taken care of. We have the same agent so I’ve been able to stay a little bit in the know. She has the right people working for her. They’re doing everything they can to get her home.”

Related: Brittney Griner told me her fear of being alone and forgotten. Don’t let it come true

Griner, a double-Olympic champion, faces 10 years in jail if she is convicted by a Russian court. But hopeful news emerged this week when the Biden administration determined that Griner is “being wrongfully detained”. US officials have now shifted Griner’s case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs which will focus on negotiating her release. The White House’s ruling came one week after the highly-publicized release of Trevor Reed, a US citizen who had been detained in Russia since 2019.

“It’s great news that the US government has reclassified her Russian detainment,” says Alexis Mrachek, policy analyst for Russia and Eurasia at The Heritage Foundation. “The fact that she is now officially ‘wrongfully detained’ means that the executive branch will be working that much harder behind the scenes to bring her home. However, it could also mean that the Russian government will push back harder against the US seeking her release. We’ve seen how strict Moscow was in the past few years with Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, who both were wrongfully detained, so we can expect to see the same regarding Brittney Griner.”

Allie Quigley, Chicago Sky guard and also a teammate of Griner’s in Russia, shared her reaction to US officials reclassifying Griner as “wrongfully detained.”

“I saw [the news] this morning,” Quigley said at the Sky’s media day. “I was so happy to know that we don’t have to wait for the trial date. Hopefully, they can try to figure something out, some kind of swap or do what they do, whatever it takes to get her home. I’m sure that was really good news for her family as well. I’ve been thinking about her for the last two months. I just hope this is a step in the right direction.”

On the court, Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammates are preparing to enter the season, which starts on Friday night, without their fearless center. In 2021, Griner led the team by averaging 20.5 points per game, and 9.5 rebounds per contest. After a successful run in the playoffs, the Mercury fell to the Sky in last season’s WNBA finals.

Mercury’s new head coach Vanessa Nygaard has the task of keeping her team competitive while also paying close attention to her players’ emotions during a trying time.

“We all are concerned every day,” Nygaard said last month. “It’s in our minds. We do get occasional updates and we are kept as informed as we can be. It’s a part of who we are this season. We’re just keeping all of our thoughts and prayers with BG and praying for her safe return.”

As the competition gets underway on the court, the Mercury and WNBA will seek to bring more awareness to Griner’s predicament. This week, the league announced that each team’s home arena will feature a floor decal with Griner’s initials and her jersey number (42).

Beyond the initial support given to Griner by the league, some are hoping that her case leads to a watershed moment for the WNBA, where its players no longer need to travel overseas to supplement their incomes. In 2020, the WNBA introduced a new collective bargaining agreement that increased player salaries, travel accommodations, and maternity leave. But even with those changes, the WNBA still lags behind the EuroLeague Women in many ways. Griner’s base salary in the WNBA is $227,900, whereas she earned $1m per year in Russia. The WNBA may also begin to undercut players who choose to join teams overseas.

“The WNBA has a provision in the CBA called the ‘prioritization clause’ which starts to take effect in 2023,” says Tamryn Spruill, author of the forthcoming book about the WNBA, Court Queens. “The clause allows teams to implement punishments on players who return late to training camps and preseason games after playing overseas. Players like Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart have played on teams that made deep runs in the EuroLeague causing them to miss time with their WNBA teams. Players who miss time can face suspension.”

Griner’s ordeal – and the questions it has raised about how and where players make their living – will most likely force the WNBA to consider improvements to the CBA that are needed for the future of its league.

For now though, the WNBA’s players, coaches, and staff will seek to continue entertaining fans – ratings for last season’s finals were up 51% on the previous year – with a high level of basketball. They’ll do all this while also hoping for the best possible outcome for Griner and her eventual return to the US.

“As WNBA players, we’ve always put our voice first on what we want to advocate for and what we care for,” said Tina Charles during the Mercury’s media day. “And we’ve always been able to see the results of that. But right now, we’re just trusting the process of those higher above us and who’ve been in those seats and been in the positions and dealt with situations like this. Just to have the best result with her coming home. But for us, we know that she knows that she’s in our thoughts and that she’s in our prayers. And she also knows what the situation is and the stance that those above [us] are taking, and we’re just following suit.”

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