Those close to Griner pursued a strategy of silence after her detention in Russia in February, hoping to avoid politicizing her case. Now they are amping up public pressure, with some of it aimed at President Biden.
Her face is on hoodies. Her name is in hashtags. Her “B.G.” and number are on fans’ jerseys and W.N.B.A. courts.
As the Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner waits in Russia, detained since Feb. 17 on drug charges, symbols of support for her are all around. They come from people who don’t know her at all and people who know and love her — from teammates, sympathizers and former coaches.
Dawn Staley, who coached Griner and her U.S. teammates to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics last year, said she thinks about her every day.
“I know Brittney, I’ve been around her, know her heart. I know what she’s about,” Staley said. “And if she’s being wrongfully detained or not, I would be advocating for her release because nobody should be in a foreign country locked up abroad.”
Staley has posted messages on Twitter about Griner every day since early May. “Can you please free our friend,” she wrote on Tuesday, tagging the official account for the White House. She added, “All of her loved ones would sleep a little easier.”
It has been more than three months since Griner was detained, accused of having hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. But only in the last few weeks has there been a coordinated public campaign by W.N.B.A. players and by Griner’s wife, family, friends and agent, Lindsay Colas, to push for her release. That’s where the hoodies — worn by many different players — and the initials — displayed on W.N.B.A. courts — come in. The #WeAreBG hashtag seen on warm-up shirts and social media is also part of the campaign.
The delay in starting the campaign was strategic: Griner’s camp was worried that publicity could make the situation worse because of tensions between the Russia and the United States, including the war in Ukraine. But the delay has also been a source of frustration for women’s basketball players known for their social justice advocacy. Their approach has changed since the State Department said on May 3 that it had determined that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.”
“We’re more public,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union. One reason, she said, was the State Department’s determination, and another was the guidance of Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
“She’s lead on this,” Jackson said. “She signaled through her team that she needed us, and that’s all we needed to hear.”
Cherelle Griner appeared on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday and appealed to President Biden to intervene.
“I just keep hearing that he has the power,” Cherelle Griner said. “She’s a political pawn. If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
The State Department’s announcement this month said that Biden’s special envoy for hostage affairs would lead an interagency team to secure Griner’s release. But since then, Griner’s detention has been extended until June 18, and the Biden administration has said little about its maneuvering. Cherelle Griner said during the television interview that her only communication with her wife had been through occasional letters. She said she had been told that her wife’s release was a top priority, but she expressed skepticism.
Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, has been speaking publicly about Brittney Griner’s detention and working with her representatives. He said Griner, who is from Houston, has had access to her attorney in Russia but has not been able to speak with her family. That violated international norms, he said.
“The Russians need to be aware that we know what they’re doing, we know why they’re doing it and there will be consequences if anything should happen to her,” Allred said.
Griner’s family and friends have sought to pressure Russia and Biden while also pleading for more support and news coverage in the United States.
“There’s not enough conversations being had about Brittney and her release and just any talks of it,” said Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina. “And I know there’s a process. I get that.”
She added later: “There’s so many people that really know Brittney that aren’t doing anything, that aren’t sympathizing with the situation. I just want people to feel like it’s their loved one. And when you feel like it’s your loved one you would do anything to help. Everybody’s got to live their life, I get that, but come on. Empathize.”
Several players in the W.N.B.A., and a few in the N.B.A., have begun publicly advocating Griner’s release; in the first two and a half months after Griner’s detention most had said only that they loved and missed her.
Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who was named the league’s most valuable player in 2018, posts daily on Twitter about Griner. DeWanna Bonner, who plays for the Connecticut Sun and was Griner’s teammate in Phoenix from 2013 to 2019, brought up Griner during a recent news conference.
“One more thing,” she said. “Free B.G. We are B.G. We love B.G. Free her.”
In mid-May, the W.N.B.A. players’ union became an official partner on a Change.org petition addressed to the White House, which urged Biden to do “whatever is necessary” to bring Griner home safely. The petition was started in March by Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist who has written for several media outlets, including The New York Times, about the W.N.B.A.
Griner’s representatives at Wasserman Media Group promoted the petition to news outlets, but they declined to comment about their approach for this article.
Silver said the N.B.A. had “a huge responsibility” to Griner but that it had been muted in its support on the advice of experts who thought amplifying her situation could hinder her release. “Having said that,” Silver said, “there’s an enormous role for the public to play through protest or letting their representatives know how badly, how strongly they feel about this.”
The day after Silver’s interview, three House Democrats introduced a resolution calling for Griner’s immediate release.
“It sends a clear message that the representatives of the American people support bringing Brittney home as quickly as possible,” said Representative Greg Stanton of Arizona, who introduced the resolution with Allred and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
Fans on social media and at games have been vocal and urgent in their pleas for months, and have expressed frustration toward Griner’s camp for its initial strategy of silence. Some of Griner’s closer supporters have had similar sentiments but did not always feel they could speak out publicly.
Jackson, from the players’ union, said the original directive not to speak out about Griner was difficult for W.N.B.A. players, who are known for their advocacy for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender equity and social justice, particularly for women of color.
“It was perhaps very different for us to get our arms around the notion that we had to be a little bit more patient, not so quick to be vocal, to really put in the time,” Jackson said.
In addition to following Cherelle Griner’s wishes, the players’ union sought counsel from Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Ph.D. student in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania, whose areas of study include African American experiences in the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia.
“Now that she’s been detained for so long,” St. Julian-Varnon said, “I think it’s appropriate to get into that second phase of: ‘OK, we have given Russia months. You’ve released Trevor Reed. So, let’s pick up the pressure and show that we have not forgotten about her and that she is still very much wanted at home.’”
Reed, a former Marine, was released as part of a prisoner swap in April after having been held in Russia since 2019 on assault charges.
In an interview with CNN broadcast last Sunday, Reed said media coverage of his case had helped lead to his release.
Staley said she recorded Reed talking about his detention so she could rewatch for clues about what could help Griner.
“Trevor’s saying you’ve got to scream at the top of your lungs. You have to get a meeting with the president,” Staley said. She added: “If you can get in front of him, it’s hard for him to tell you no. It’s hard for him to look into a grieving parent or wife’s eyes and say, ‘I can’t do anything.’”
Because she won a national championship with South Carolina this year, Staley and her team are likely to be invited to the White House to meet with Biden soon.
“I will give Brittney’s wife, parents, family, I will give them our visit to the White House,” she said.