By Marc H. Morial,
President and CEO,
National Urban League
“Please continue to pray for my family and all the other families of the wrongfully detained, as our pain remains active until our loved ones are brought home. Let’s continue to use our voices to speak the names of all the wrongfully detained Americans and support the Administration as they do what it takes to bring them home today.” – Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner
Of all the things Brittney Griner is, and all the things she represents to her family, her teammates, her friends and her fans – athlete, advocate, philanthropist – she is, above all at this moment, an American who is wrongfully detained in Russia.
In the news this week, the Biden Administration is prepared to negotiate a prisoner exchange for her release brings her one step closer to coming home, where she belongs.
The news coincided with a striking Time magazine cover and in-depth profile that paints a picture of a newly-hopeful Brittney, buoyed by a personal letter from President Biden and a phone call from the President and Vice President Kamala Harris to her wife, Cherelle, assuring the couple that they have not forgotten Brittney’s plight and are working diligently to secure her release.
“I was able to read the letter, and it brought me so much joy, as well as BG,” Cherelle said. “I believe every word that she said to him he understood. And he sees her as a person, and he has not forgotten her, which was her biggest cry in her letter.”
In a letter to the President earlier this month, Brittney shared her fear that she would remain in Russia forever.
In a Russian courtroom, Brittney flashed a smile as she held up a photo of every player in the WNBA All-Star game wearing Phoenix Mercury jerseys with Brittney’s number 42 emblazoned on the back. The league named Brittney an honorary All-Star starter; she responded to the news by joking that she’ll have the worst stat line since she can’t even be at the game.
“She still has her sense of humor,” teammate Brianna Turner said. “It’s just insane.”
Her “goofy side” is on display in the Time profile, which recounts her “skittering” her 6-foot, 9-inch frame around the Mercury team offices on a motorized tricycle, or commandeering the microphone to ask for a price check on green beans whenever Mercury players spend a day working at team sponsor Fry’s Food Stores.
Impending talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, would be their first communication since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Brittney was taken into detention a week before the invasion.
While Blinken has not confirmed details of the proposed exchange, multiple news outlets have confirmed it involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted in U.S. federal court in 2011 on charges including conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Under the proposal, Bout would be exchanged for Brittney and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan called Whelan’s trial “a mockery of justice.”
The National Urban League firmly supports the Biden Administration’s efforts to bring Brittney home. In June, we joined dozens of other civil and human rights organizations in urging President Biden to strike a deal for her release.
As we noted in our letter, and the Time profile makes clear, Brittney has overcome bullying, hate, and alienation to become an international superstar, an anti-bullying advocate, and devoted patron of BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, a partnership with the Phoenix Rescue Mission to provide shoes to people experiencing homelessness.
“People don’t even know how much she has already pushed through,” high school teammate and lifelong friend Janell Roy said. “For me to know her past journey, and some of the things that she’s dealt with, I can tell you that my sister is not going to come back weak. That’s for sure. She’s only going to come back stronger.”
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