The NBA is a $10 billion corporation that has the power and reach not only to nurture its teams and players, but to provoke discussion and debate about social issues. She has used that influence most notably to combat racism in the United States.
But when it comes to Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who has been jailed in Russia since February, NBA teams have been largely absent from the public campaign for her release. The NBA created the WNBA and still owns about half of it, but the NBA has been relatively silent outside of press conferences as Griner’s family, her agent, and the women’s league and players have led the public push for her freedom. NBA players have also shown support.
Officials from both leagues said they initially remained silent at the urging of US government officials, who feared publicizing the case would backfire and put Griner even more at risk. But even after the U.S. State Department said it had found she had been “wrongly detained,” and government officials began talking regularly about Griner, the NBA and team owners mostly stayed quiet, stoking feelings that the case wasn’t got as much of a spotlight as Griner supporters have demanded.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said publicly that the league and its teams are using their influence and connections to help Griner in ways the public doesn’t see. It’s hard to say if they’re doing enough when even pundits of diplomacy disagree on what would be “enough,” or whether public or private advocacy would be more effective.
“There are no easy answers,” said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist who runs a political risk research and consulting firm. He added, “Could the NBA have done more? Yes, they could have.”
On the other hand, Bremmer said, pressure from the NBA could prompt Russia to demand more in a deal to release Griner. Experts have suggested that a prisoner swap could free Griner.
“How you evaluate all of these things depends on your perspective,” Bremmer said.
The NBA players’ union said its members are deeply concerned about Griner, citing players’ public displays of support at playoff games and awards shows and on social media. Silver and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert have said the NBA owners are also concerned but have kept their advocacy out of the public eye. The New York Times contacted the owners of all 30 NBA teams — directly or through agents — and none agreed to be interviewed about Griner.
Through a spokesman, Silver declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement he reiterated his public statements that the league had “actively worked with government officials and experts.”
“The NBA and its teams are also using their influence to draw attention to Brittney’s situation, but ultimately this is an issue that needs to be resolved by the United States government due to the serious and complex geopolitical issues it faces,” Silver said in the statement .
The nuance of the League’s position does not escape even those most aware of what it means to be unjustly imprisoned abroad. Consider Washington Post opinion writer Jason Rezaian, who was held in Iran on false charges for a year and a half and released in a prisoner swap in 2016.
He was preparing to quiz Silver at a press conference ahead of the NBA Finals in June, one of the few the commissioner gives in the season.
“I wanted to embarrass him,” Rezaian said of Silver. “‘What do you as a company do for your employees?'”
But before he got a chance, Silver forestalled him, saying the NBA and WNBA were working with the US government and outside experts to try to expedite Griner’s release. Rezaian said he thought Silver’s comments were powerful and that it was wise to talk about Griner before asking him.
“I thought it was wonderful that the commissioner used this moment of what is arguably his biggest platform of the year, or one of them, to raise awareness of the case,” said Rezaian. “If he could do that then, three and a half months after her detention, he could have done it sooner.
“But I know that in the past they were advised against it. I don’t blame anyone for that. There is no official manual on what to do when a loved one or employee is taken hostage by a hostile state.”
Griner, 31, has been detained since February 17 after Russian customs officers said they found hash oil in an e-cigarette cartridge in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Her trial began July 1, and she pleaded guilty on July 7. She said she had no intention of breaking the law when she traveled from her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, to play at a Russian women’s basketball team during the offseason.
Her next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. If she is officially convicted, which experts say was likely before she pleaded guilty, Griner could face up to 10 years in a penal colony. The US State Department said it would work to negotiate their release regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Her public support has remained strong despite her guilty plea.
“That’s a question I get asked all the time – ‘Was the NBA helpful?'” Engelbert said. “Extremely helpful. We share a brand. We have NBA by our name. NBA team owners have reached out to me personally: ‘What can we do to help Brittney?'”
Engelbert said an NBA owner put her in touch with the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs, a State Department unit that handles the cases of Americans deemed wrongfully detained even before Griner was given that designation.
Negotiations for the release of prisoners abroad are often conducted in secret. It’s unclear what role the NBA played in pressuring government officials or supporting Griner’s family, but Engelbert said Silver was personally involved in making calls to government officials on Griner’s behalf.
When the State Department announced that it had determined that Griner had been wrongly arrested, the WNBA season was about to begin, but only eight NBA teams remained in the playoffs.
“It takes a while to realize that the person you’re trying to influence is the President of the United States,” Rezaian said. “Because they’re the only ones capable of making the kind of concessions and decisions to make concessions that will set someone free.”
He later added, “People come home when it gets politically expensive for a president not to come home.”
Teams at the WNBA have honored Griner in many ways, including fundraisers, court badges and t-shirts, and her family will still receive their full Mercury salary this season. Some NBA players have spoken out about her or worn clothing that drew attention to her incarceration. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns, who own the Mercury, have put a sticker on their spot and posted about Griner on their social media accounts, but few NBA teams have shown many vocal or public displays of support.
Experts are divided on the impact of public pressure. Some believe it will worsen Griner’s situation by giving the Russian government more room for maneuver. A Russian official said the publicity surrounding her case caused “interference” in completing a deal.
NBA team owners were not part of the public campaign. At a press conference during the Summer League in Las Vegas this month, Silver said that Griner’s situation was not on the agenda of the league’s board meeting, but that individual owners had spoken to him about it.
The Times then contacted at least one owner from each team. Eleven representatives declined on behalf of the owners, including one who didn’t even want to forward the request. A spokesman said the team’s owner was on vacation and 16 teams had not responded. Two owners responded directly.
“I can say that I have complete confidence that the NBA and WNBA league offices are doing everything in their power,” Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, said in a text message.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined an interview but said via email, “I hope she comes out soon.”
Five NBA teams – in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington, DC – own WNBA teams. The owners of those teams declined to comment, but each of those WNBA teams has publicly endorsed Griner.
Engelbert said the NBA hasn’t asked team owners to avoid talking about Griner. She is part of the NBA’s Senior Leadership Team and reports to Silver.
“The suggestion was to support the administration and the State Department in the work they are doing in this complex situation to bring Brittney home,” Engelbert said.
The players have shown their support. During an NBA players’ union meeting in May, Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star who spent last season with the Lakers, said players should use the Finals to highlight Griner.
On June 2nd, the day of Silver’s NBA Finals press conference, Anthony posted a video on Twitter of him talking about Griner. He has 9.2 million followers.
“I wanted to use my voice to mobilize the basketball community,” Anthony said in a statement to The Times.
At an NBA finals practice session two days after Anthony posted his video, almost every member of the Boston Celtics wore a black T-shirt with the words “We are BG” written in orange. Grant Williams, a Celtics forward and players’ union vice president, had the jerseys shipped overnight for his teammates.
Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, have also spoken publicly about Griner.
Tamika Tremaglio, the executive secretary of the NBA players union, said she reached out to Terri Jackson, the executive secretary of the WNBA players union, because shortly after the news of Griner’s incarceration, word broke on how NBA players could help.
When NBA union leaders met in Las Vegas this month, they asked for an update. Jackson, who attended the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, recorded a video that was shown to the NBA players.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Tremaglio said. “They were so thoughtful in terms of listening and hearing and understanding what was happening. We as a trade union also support women. That also concerned us critically.”
Rezaian said public statements of support are important.
During his 544-day detention in Iran, some of his most hopeful moments had come when he heard people talking about him, be it someone from the Washington Post or President Barack Obama.
“Something like that just floods you with a feeling of being alive and also having power,” Rezaian said. “The walls may be around you and you can’t break them down, but you’re still there. you still count And people will do what they can for you.”