For most of the time since her arrest in Russia on drug charges in February, WNBA star Brittney Griner has only intermittently been in the headlines.
First came her arrest, after Russian authorities claimed to have found vape cartridges with hashish in her luggage at the Moscow airport. Griner was in Russia to earn money playing for a European team.
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The timing was suspicious, given that it occurred just as the war between Russia and Ukraine was starting and as U.S. pressure on Russia was escalating. As a public figure and two-time Olympic medalist, Griner was suddenly a pawn in a high-stakes battle between two superpowers, an unacknowledged prisoner of war in a nation that despises LGBTQ people.
Since then there have been intermittent updates, largely as Griner’s case moves through the Russian legal system. The U.S. State Department finally commented in May that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that the government was providing “appropriate consular support.”
The silence was strategic, as work went on behind the scenes on Griner’s behalf. But now Griner’s wife Cherelle and Griner’s supporters have decided it’s time to put public pressure on the President Joe Biden to get Russia to free Griner.
In an interview with Good Morning America, Cherelle Griner said she wants Biden to do whatever it takes to get her wife released.
“She’s a political pawn, so if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it,” she said, addressing Biden directly.
Cherelle Griner said that she has communicated with her wife through occasional letters. While the Biden administration has assured Cherelle that Brittney’s release is a top priority, she has her doubts.
“I feel like to see it would be me seeing B.G. on U.S. soil,” Cherelle said. “At this point, I don’t even know who I’m getting back when she comes back.”
Following Cherelle Griner’s lead, WNBA players have quickly rallied to the cause.
“We’re more public,” WNBA players’ union executive director Terri Jackson told The New York Times. “[Cherelle] signaled through her team that she needed us, and that’s all we needed to hear.”
“There’s not enough conversations being had about Brittney and her release and just any talks of it,” said Dawn Staley, who coached Brittney Griner at the Olympics.
One possible reason for the change in tactics was the recent release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been detained in Russia in 2019 following what Russians said was an altercation with authorities, a charge Reed denied. He was released in a prisoner swap last April.
Reed attributed his family’s activism on his behalf, leading to a meeting with Biden, to his release.
“Trevor’s saying you’ve got to scream at the top of your lungs. You have to get a meeting with the president,” Staley told the Times. “If you can get in front of him, it’s hard for him to tell you no.”