PHOENIX — I’m not sure what I expected to hear from Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner on Thursday. The ground rules were established in advance: Griner would not answer questions about her almost 10-month ordeal in Russia. With her memoir scheduled to be published next spring, you wouldn’t expect Griner, in a public forum, to give away the “good stuff”: probing introspection about how her detainment in a Russian prison changed her world view.
Still, the opportunity to see the 31-year-old star in person was too compelling to miss.
One of the most definitive things Griner said is that she was finished with traveling overseas to compete. “I can say for me, I’m never going overseas to play again unless I’m representing my country at the Olympics,” she said. “If I make that team, that’s the only time I’ll leave U.S. soil, to represent the USA.”
Griner was arrested in February 2022 after Russian customs officials allegedly detected vaping equipment with cannabis oil cartridges at an airport near Moscow. She was released in December 2022 in a highly publicized prisoner exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The ordeal made Griner one of the highest-profile athletes on the planet. The detainment also raised important issues about the plight of U.S. citizens detained abroad and about WNBA players having to play overseas to supplement their incomes.
This wasn’t Griner’s first public appearance. In February, Griner was recognized at the NAACP Image Awards. But Thursday’s news conference, with a crush of media in attendance, was Griner’s first time taking and responding to questions.
In what will likely become a consistent theme, Griner encouraged media to cover the WNBA as intensely throughout the season as it did on Thursday.
“I would like to encourage all of you to be at our first game as well and the entire season as well, covering not only the Phoenix Mercury, but the whole entire league, from start to finish,” she said. “I expect to see this same coverage, ‘cause we have a great product.”
Griner became emotional when someone asked about the resilience required to endure her time in prison. During her ordeal she reminded herself how she survived rigorous practice sessions and used those tactics to survive her imprisonment.
“I’m no stranger to hard times,” she said. “Just digging deep. You’re going to be faced with adversities throughout your life — this was a pretty big one. But I just relied on hard work and getting through it.
“You find a way to just grind it out, just put your head down and keep going, keep moving forward, You can never stand still. Never be still. Never get too focused on the bad. Keep looking forward to what’s to come.”
What Griner symbolizes is greater than anything she could have said Thursday.
This is a time of continued growth, respect and visibility of women in sports in the United States. Consider the women’s Final Four in March, which set viewership records. LSU forward Angel Reese and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark evoked comparisons to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for bringing positive attention to women’s basketball. In recent years, gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have focused attention on mental health issues.
Now Griner — the Mercury’s 6-foot-9 center, an NCAA champion, a two-time Olympic champion, and a seven-time WNBA All-Star — has brought attention to the league. Her arrest brought attention to the disparity in the salaries of male and female pro basketball players, with women having to travel overseas to supplement their incomes by playing virtually year-round.
These are exciting times for the WNBA. What makes the league compelling is that it is not merely a sports league but a veritable movement, advocating empowerment, equity, respect and recognition.
Griner represents the good fight.
After the news conference, Mercury team president Vince Kozar said the organization was looking to build on the attention Griner’s ordeal has brought to the team without exploiting it.
“One of the things we’ve repeated to ourselves is, ‘They may come for BG, but they’ll stay for the Mercury,’ ” he said. “We’re not being shy about putting Brittney on all of our promotion for the opening because that’s a celebration for welcoming her back. Whatever additional coverage we get, whatever additional attention we get that drives people into the building, will propel us to whatever the next stage of the W’s growth is.”
The WNBA is fighting, scratching and battling on so many fronts. The league is battling for everything from pay equity to social justice initiatives to traveling on charter flights. In contrast, NBA players collectively seem to have become comfortable and content with success and the status quo with contracts guaranteed for the most part and no issues on the horizon. The players recently signed a collective bargaining agreement that will assure labor peace for the next seven years.
Some will argue that in 2020 many NBA players expressed outrage after the murder of George Floyd by police. The reality is that WNBA players have consistently been at the forefront of social justice movements in sports in recent years, ahead of their male counterparts. They were among the first, in 2016, to wear “Black Lives Matter” warmup shirts before games to protest several incidents of police violence. The WNBA dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, the medical worker killed by police in a botched raid of her home in Louisville, Kentucky.
During the 2020 season, the WNBA and WNBPA launched The Justice Movement and formed the Social Justice Council. The council’s mission was to be a driving force of change and continuing conversations about race and voting rights.
In 2021, the WNBA took activism to a new level when four Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury players appeared on national television wearing black shirts with an all-caps message on the front: VOTE WARNOCK. The message was in support of Raphael Warnock, at the time a pastor who was relatively unknown nationally running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, had complained about the increased activism of WNBA players. WNBA players began wearing Warnock T-shirts and the message went viral on social media. You can argue that the Dream and the WNBA helped launched Warnock’s career. He won the runoff election and became Georgia’s first Black senator. Warnock won reelection in November 2022.
In the wake of the Floyd murder in 2020, Griner suggested that the WNBA stop playing the national anthem, because of social justice issues and systemic racism. I doubt that Griner has changed her views on social justice and systemic racism, but her position has understandably been muted because of the United States government’s role in securing her release. The release had nothing to do with systemic racism, but with a player becoming ensnared in a web of global politics.
The larger question is how will the WNBA benefit from all of the attention paid to Griner. And what are Griner’s priorities? She potentially represents a number of interests:
- Bringing home U.S. citizens detained abroad.
- The growth of women’s sports.
Additionally, will Griner insert herself into the volatile transgender athletes’ rights issue? Will the WNBA take a public stand, and if so, on which side? Earlier this month Kansas became the 19th state to ban transgender athletes from girls and women’s sports, from kindergarten through college.
“That ranks high on the list of things I’ll be fighting for and speaking up against,” she said. “Everyone deserves the right to play, everyone deserves the right to come here, sit in these seats and feel safe. I think it’s a crime honestly to separate someone for any reason, so I definitely will be speaking up against those legislations and those laws that are trying to be passed.”
Of all these issues, the continued growth of the WNBA is paramount and Griner has played a major role in that growth.
The NBA was formed in 1946, the WNBA was formed 50 years later, in 1996. While it’s hard to imagine today, the NBA had to climb a steep mountain to reach its current stature as a global dynamo.
During the 1970s, the league was considered “too Black,” and it took a white star (Bird) to help soften the league’s image and make it palatable. The NBA Finals were still on tape delay into the 1980s, something a current generation of NBA fans might find hard to imagine.
Where will the WNBA be when it celebrates its 77th anniversary in 2073? That’s a long way off. In the here and now, as the WNBA begins its 27th season, Britney Griner — prisoner, hostage, activist — occupies center stage.
The league can anticipate so many twists and turns yet to come, and Griner has so many more chapters yet to write.