The W.N.B.A. is a trendsetter, a league of mostly Black women who have taken up major progressive causes: voting rights, stricter gun laws, equality for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But this year’s push to free Brittney Griner, one of their own, from a geopolitical standoff in Russia — that was their toughest test yet.
“This is what Black women do,” Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics said. “We carry the weight in our family, this country, and we always have, whether we get the acknowledgment or not from it.”
Griner was released from a Russian penal colony on Thursday in a prisoner exchange after, the U.S. State Department said, she had been “wrongfully detained” on drug charges for nearly 10 months. Griner is home. Other imprisoned Americans who also may be in danger are not. The W.N.B.A.’s mission continues.
“We also want those other prisoners over there to come home as well,” Isabelle Harrison of the Dallas Wings said. “We don’t want them to just be like, ‘Oh, we just got B.G. home, and we’re done.’ No, that’s not what the W does.”
In recent years, W.N.B.A. members helped flip a Senate seat in Georgia by supporting the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, when Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who owned the Atlanta Dream, spoke against the Black Lives Matter movement. They walked out of games to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin, and dedicated a season to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by Kentucky police. Their latest collective bargaining agreement set new benchmarks in pay and benefits for women in sports.
“But, at the same time, they are mere mortals,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union. “Emotionally, this does take a toll. All of their advocacy and their work in the communities around so many issues — pick an issue, reproductive rights, voting rights, gun control — it wears on them.”
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The plane returning Griner from Russia had not even touched down in the United States before Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, pledged that the campaign to free Griner would transition into securing the release for wrongfully detained Americans around the world. W.N.B.A. players have been at the heart of that campaign and many others.
“While I was fighting for B.G. this year, I was still fighting for sensible gun laws,” Cloud said. “While we were still fighting for B.G., we were still fighting for a woman’s right to her body and to the choice to her body and the choice to her life. We were still fighting and trying to get people out to vote, understanding how important these elections were in the trajectory of where our country was headed.”
W.N.B.A. players went about their season while knowing their teammate and friend was imprisoned in Russia. “Honestly, I don’t think the W.N.B.A. ever takes a break from advocacy,” Harrison said. “I think we’re always at a point where we’re fighting and trying to get some type of justice, all whilst trying to build up our league and play basketball.”
On Aug. 4, the day a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony, her Phoenix Mercury teammates played a game.
“Nobody even wanted to play today,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said afterward. “How are we even supposed to approach the game and approach the court with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the game?”
Napheesa Collier, of the Minnesota Lynx, said she didn’t go more than a day or two without talking about Griner, and her group chats with other W.N.B.A. players constantly included discussions of the situation in Russia.
“They’ve advocated every single day, keeping her in the media, keep talking about her, making sure that no one’s forgetting, making sure that we’re doing everything that we can to bring her home,” Collier said.
W.N.B.A. players often proudly refer to themselves as “The 144,” referring to the total number of players in the league. Some, like the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart, a former most valuable player, sent social media messages daily in support of Griner.
“I was using my platform in all ways possible and really making sure that throughout this time, everybody was still keeping B.G. in their thoughts during her wrongful detention,” Stewart said. “To finally be at a moment where I don’t have to send that tweet is amazing.”
She added: “Ever since I came into the W.N.B.A., we’ve always been at the forefront in speaking out against social injustices, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. As a league full of women and majority Black women, there’s a lot that needs to be fought for, and we’re used to it and we’re used to speaking up on our own account and now for others.”
Many players wore Griner-themed clothing designed by Isabella Escribano, a 14-year-old known as Jiggy Izzy, who is popular on social media for her basketball skills. The front of the design, seen on hoodies and T-shirts, features a smiling Griner in her Mercury jersey with a basketball that reads “WEAREBG” — the phrase that became the rallying cry for her release.
Griner’s jersey number, 42, is wrapped around the left side, and on the back, her first and last name are printed in capital letters. With the help of her brothers, Escribano worked with Griner’s agent and the W.N.B.A. players’ union to get the clothing to players across the W.N.B.A. and the N.B.A. Escribano said it was “very empowering and rewarding” to see Griner freed.
“Because just, like, for all we’ve done, and for her to be home now, it was for a purpose,” Escribano said, adding: “I hope one day I can meet her and tell her how I felt and how I wanted to help her in any situation possible.”
Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University specializing in race, sports and gender, said that the W.N.B.A. had proved itself as a force for social justice, though she “would love for them to have the opportunity to develop advocacy on their terms.”
“They meet the challenge every time, but wouldn’t it be great to not have to?” she said.
Jackson, the union’s executive director, said Griner’s ordeal shoved to the forefront important issues like pay equity and W.N.B.A. investment. Griner had been in Russia during the W.N.B.A. off-season to play for a professional team there that reportedly paid her at least $1 million, more than four times what she made in the United States. Dozens of W.N.B.A. players compete internationally in the off-season to boost their incomes. But Griner’s detention led many players, fans and opinion columnists to wonder aloud whether more should be done to raise pay here so players do not feel the need to go abroad.
“We are not honoring the players, we are not honoring B.G., if we don’t have those conversations,” Jackson said.
This weekend, the W.N.B.A. players’ union plans to certify a new executive committee, whose members will set the agenda for the next wave of activism. Jackson and others expect the players to focus on women’s health and continue pushing for the freedom of those like the American Paul Whelan, who is also detained in Russia. Many people were disappointed that Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, had not been included in the prisoner exchange that freed Griner.
“Instead of people hating and complaining for one American coming home who has won and has represented her country in the most respectful ways, we should harness that into fighting for Paul,” Cloud said.
The league, for years now, has shown that it knows no other path. One issue is solved. Others remain.
“They really understand the power of the collective voice, and so they can lean on each other — literally, sometimes — to continue to draw that strength and propel them forward,” Jackson said.
Shauntel Lowe contributed reporting.