The WNBA strikes an awkward silence on Brittney Griner

PHOENIX — When does Britney Griner to be freed ? This painful question hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just as it is likely to weigh o...


PHOENIX — When does Britney Griner to be freed ?

This painful question hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just as it is likely to weigh on the next WNBA season.

At a preseason home game last week between Phoenix and the Seattle Storm, screaming and twirling hip-hop dance crews energized the crowd. As the teams entered the field, the PA system crackled with the names of some of women’s basketball’s best-known players. Sue Bird. Breanna Stewart. Tina Charles. They were joined by Mercury virtuoso Diana Taurasi, 39, who was dressed for the preseason game but plans to be ready when the regular season begins on Friday.

Griner, the Mercury’s seven-time All-Star center, won’t. Since February, she has been detained in Russia after customs officials at a Moscow region airport said they found vaping cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

His glaring absence struck an awkward note. On the gigantic screen that towers above the Phoenix field, Griner’s image has flashed alongside that of her teammates in promotional videos. Dozens of fans in the crowd wore Mercury jerseys emblazoned with his name and number, 42.

It was the first time the Mercury had played since Griner was taken into Russian custody, but there was no official acknowledgment of his absence by the players, no moment of silence to consider of the collective angst of one of the league’s most beloved entertainers, who is known to teammates and fans as BG

Silence is by design.

The WNBA is perhaps America’s most progressive and outspoken sports league. Its actors have a long history of taking public positions on issues such as race, gender equality, politics and reproductive rights. In the days following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, WNBA players boycotted Games. During the first cloistered days of the pandemic, they wore black shirts that says, “Say Her Name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman shot dead by police in Louisville, Ky.

But with Griner being held in Russia, her whereabouts and specific details of how she is doing being passed only to a select circle of friends, family and advisers, the league is taking a more stealthy approach.

Instead of heckling, the players are silent.

Instead of demanding change, they are silent.

They are following the lead of Griner advisers, who decided it was best to let behind-the-scenes diplomacy work. With Griner facing up to 10 years in prison, they felt the wisest decision was to keep a low profile at this time. For now, it makes sense, the reasoning goes, not to give President Vladimir V. Putin leverage by using Griner as a bargaining chip in negotiations while his military wages war on Ukraine.

“We’re absolutely upfront about everything we can be,” Mercury guard Kia Nurse, entering his fifth year in the WNBA, said at the team’s practice facility last week. “But we’re also very good at admitting that we don’t know everything and we’re not the experts on everything.”

“We’re following the process,” Nurse said, before noting the week’s hopeful news. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that a former U.S. Navy, Trevor R. Reedwas released in a prisoner exchange after nearly three years of detention in Russia.

Among Mercury players, Reed’s return has brought a fresh dose of optimism that Griner could be next.

But the deal for Reed has also prompted new calls from activists outside his camp who wonder aloud if enough is done to bring Griner home. Why, they ask, was she not included in the exchange? Why is everyone in the league so circumspect? Wouldn’t loud and visible protests for Griner help pressure action?

In Phoenix, more than a few fans told me they didn’t think Griner’s case was getting enough attention. Or that if an NBA star was being held in Russia – awaiting a hearing, as Griner is, and facing a lengthy prison sentence, as Griner is – the calls for his release would be thunderous, insistent and incessant.

“With him gone, it feels like we’re missing a limb,” said Dacia Johnson, an ardent Mercury fan who wore a Griner jersey. “And the way the team and the league remain so calm makes it worse. There wasn’t a word about her at the start of this game. I’m really upset about that.

What if Devin Booker was in Russian custody, she wondered, referring to the Phoenix Suns’ top scoring guard?

“If it was Booker, and not a 6-foot-9 gay black woman? If it was someone from the men’s sport, I think they would have had something in his honor, even if it was a moment of silence.

Johnson seemed as emotional about Griner as the player’s teammates, who seemed stricken with sadness whenever I mentioned Griner’s name. Still, Mercury players stuck to the script. They said how much they love BG, how special she is. How she is like a member of their family, and constantly in their thoughts and prayers. Behind cautious words lurked raw pain.

“She’s my sister, so I love her,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, who won gold alongside Griner at the Olympics last summer in Tokyo. Diggins-Smith’s direct words were weighted as his voice shook with frustration and angst shone in his eyes. She continued, “I think of her every day and can’t wait for her to come back here with us.”

We are in uncharted territory.

As the season begins, the WNBA is still grappling with ways to honor Griner that won’t hurt his cause. League teams plan to expand the Griner’s Heart and Sole charity, which donates shoes to those in need, beyond Phoenix. Other ideas are also being considered.

But fans like Johnson and his girlfriend, Autumn Gardner, want boldness from the league that’s known for it. As the preseason game against the Storm drew to a close, a 4-point loss to Mercury, Gardner didn’t just utter Griner’s name. She shouted it. “BG! she chanted, loud and insistent enough to reach the courtyard. “BG! BG! BG!”

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Newsrust - US Top News: The WNBA strikes an awkward silence on Brittney Griner
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