NBA campaign to free Britney Griner goes mostly low key

The NBA is a $10 billion corporation that can not only promote its teams and players, but also provoke discussion and debate on social issues. This influence was most notably used to combat racism in the United States.

And yet when it came to Britney Griner, a WNBA star who has been detained in Russia since February, NBA teams have barely participated in the public campaign for her release. The NBA founded the WNBA and still owns about half of it, but the NBA has been relatively muted outside of press conferences as the Griner family, her agent, the women’s league and her players led the public movement for her freedom. NBA players also provided support.

Officials in both leagues said they were initially silent at the urging of US government officials, who feared the disclosure of the case would backfire and further endanger Griner. But even after the US State Department said it had established that she was “illegally detainedand government officials began talking about Griner regularly, the NBA and team owners remained largely silent, fueling sentiment that the case was not getting the attention Griner supporters demanded.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has publicly stated that the league and its teams are using their influence and connections to help Greener in ways the public doesn’t see. It’s hard to tell if they’re doing enough when even diplomatic experts disagree on what would be “enough” and what would be more effective: public or private advocacy.

“There are no easy answers,” said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist who runs a political risk research and advisory firm. He added: “Could the NBA have done more? Yes, they could.

On the other hand, Bremmer said, pressure from the NBA could prompt Russia to demand more in a deal to free Griner. Experts speculated that a prisoner exchange could free Griner.

“How you evaluate all these things depends on your point of view,” Bremmer said.

The NBA Players Union said its members were deeply concerned about Griner’s fate and pointed to public displays of support from players at playoff and awards games, as well as on social media. Silver and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the NBA owners also care about this, but have kept their defense out of the public eye. The New York Times contacted the owners of all 30 NBA teams – directly or through representatives – and none of them agreed to be interviewed about Griner.

Through a spokesperson, Silver declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement, he reiterated his public comments that the league was “actively engaged” with government officials and experts.

“The NBA and its teams are also using their influence to draw attention to Britney’s situation, but ultimately this is a matter for the United States government to resolve due to serious and complex geopolitical issues,” Silver said in a statement.

The nuance of the league’s position is not overlooked even by those who are most aware of what it means to be wrongfully detained abroad. Take Jason Rezayan, a Washington Post columnist who was held in Iran for a year and a half on false charges and released in a 2016 prisoner exchange.

He prepared to question Silver in June before the NBA Finals at a press conference, one of the few the commissioner gives this season.

“I wanted to put him in his place,” Rezaian said of Silver. “As a corporation, what are you doing for this employee of yours?”

But before he got the chance, Silver got ahead of him by saying that the NBA and WNBA were working with the US government and outside experts to try and speed up Griner’s release. Rezaian said that he thought Silver’s remarks were persuasive and that talking about Griner before being asked was smart.

“I thought it was great that the commissioner used this moment, perhaps his biggest platform of the year or one of them, to bring attention to the case,” Rezaian said. “If he could do it then, after three and a half months of her detention, he could have done it earlier.

“But I know they were advised not to do it earlier. I don’t blame anyone for this. There is no official guidance on what to do when your loved one or employee is taken hostage by a hostile state.”

Griner, 31, has been in custody since February. March 17 after Russian customs officials said they found hash oil in an e-cigarette cartridge in her luggage at an airport outside Moscow. Her trial began July 1as well as she pleaded guilty on July 7. She said she had no intention of breaking the law when she traveled to play for the Russian women’s basketball team of her WNBA Phoenix Mercury team during the off-season.

Her next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. If she’s formally convicted, what the experts said that probably even before she pleaded guilty, Griner could face up to 10 years in a maximum security penal colony. The US State Department said it would work to negotiate her release regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Her public support remains strongdespite her admission of guilt.

“I get asked this question all the time: Has the NBA helped me?” Engelbert said. “Extremely helpful. We share a brand. We have NBA after our name. NBA team owners reached out to me personally: ‘What can we do to help with Britney?’

Engelbert said an NBA official put her in touch with the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, the State Department unit that handles cases of Americans found wrongfully detained, even before Griner received the assignment.

Negotiations for the release of prisoners abroad often being quiet. It’s unclear what the NBA’s role is in putting pressure on government officials or helping the Griner family, but Engelbert said Silver was personally involved in phone calls to government officials on Griner’s behalf.

By the time the State Department announced it had determined that Griner had been wrongfully detained, the WNBA season was about to begin, but only eight NBA teams were still competing in the playoffs.

“It will take some time to realize that the person you are trying to influence is the President of the United States,” Rezaian said. “Because they are the only ones who can make such concessions and decisions to make concessions that will set someone free.”

He later added, “People return home when it becomes politically expensive for the president if they don’t return home.”

Griner has been honored by WNBA teams in a variety of ways, including fundraising, court stickers and jerseys, and her family will still receive her full Mercury paycheck this season. Some NBA players talked about her or wore clothing that drew attention to her detention. The Phoenix Suns of the NBA, which owns the Mercury, added a sticker to their court and posted about Griner on their social media accounts, but few NBA teams have made many high-profile or public displays of support.

Experts were divided on the impact of public pressure. Some say this worsens Griner’s position by giving the Russian government more leverage in the negotiations. One Russian official said the publicity around her case was creating “interference” in making a deal.

NBA team owners did not participate in the public campaign. At a press conference during the summer league in Las Vegas this month, Silver said the Griner situation was not discussed at the league’s board of governors meeting, but individual owners spoke to him about it.

The Times then contacted at least one owner from each team. Eleven representatives refused on behalf of the owners, including one that did not even pass on the request. One spokesperson said the team owner was on vacation and 16 teams did not respond. Two owners responded immediately.

“I can say that I have complete confidence that the offices of the NBA and WNBA leagues are doing everything in their power. Jeanie Basscontrolling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, the text message said.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to be interviewed but emailed, “I hope it comes out soon.”

Five NBA teams—in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, DC—own WNBA teams. The owners of these teams declined to comment, but each of these WNBA teams has publicly endorsed Griner.

Engelbert said the NBA didn’t ask team owners to avoid talking about Griner. She is on the NBA Senior Management Team and reports to Silver.

“The offer was to support the administration and the State Department in the work they are doing in this difficult situation to bring Britney home,” Engelbert said.

The players expressed their support. During an NBA Players Union meeting in May, Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star who played last season with the Lakers, said players should use the Finals to single out Griner.

June 2, the day of Silver’s NBA Finals press conference, Anthony posted the video on Twitter. or Griner himself discusses. He has 9.2 million subscribers.

“I wanted to use my voice to bring the basketball community together,” Anthony said in a statement to The Times.

In practice for the NBA Finals, two days after Anthony posted his video, almost every Boston Celtics player was wearing a black T-shirt with the words “We are BG” written in orange. Grant Williams, a Celtics forward and vice president of the players’ union, mailed T-shirts to his teammates overnight.

Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, have also spoken publicly about Griner.

Tamika Tremalho, chief executive of the NBA players union, said she contacted Terry Jackson, chief executive of the WNBA players union, immediately after news broke of Griner’s detention and how NBA players could help.

When NBA union leaders met in Las Vegas this month, they asked for an update. Jackson, who was at the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, recorded a video that was shown to NBA players.

“You could hear the pin fall,” Tremalho said. “They were so thoughtful, listening and listening and understanding what was going on. It’s that we, as a trade union, also support women. This is something that we were also very worried about.”

Rezaian said public displays of support are important.

During his 544-day detention in Iran, some of his most hopeful moments came when he heard people talking about him, whether it was from the Washington Post or President Barack Obama.

“Things like that just fill you with a sense of life and also power,” Rezaian said. “Walls may have been erected around you and you cannot tear them down, but you are still there. You are still counting. And people do everything they can for you.”