Two-time Olympic gold medalist and all-around basketball superstar Brittney Griner made headlines in February 2022 when she was arrested on a trip to Russia. As ESPN reported, the 31-year-old was stopped by authorities at Moscow’s airport when they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
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She was taken into custody and a question-ridden trial followed. Many considered the legal process (and eventual verdict) to be a sham and argued that the WNBA star was being used as a political pawn.
Brittney Griner’s Prison Sentence, Explained
On August 4, 2022, Brittney Griner appeared in a Moscow courthouse and was found guilty of drug possession. Earlier, in July 2022, she had pleaded guilty to the charges but maintained she made “an honest mistake.” However, she acknowledged she’d take full responsibility for it, saying, per ESPN, “I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty, but I had no intent to break any Russian laws.”
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Even so, a judge dismissed her explanation and sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony. The maximum possible sentence was 10 years. She also slapped the pro athlete with a fine of one million rubles or about $17,000 USD, per NPR.
While Griner wasn’t able to speak after her conviction, her defense attorney, Maria Blagovolina, offered some insight into her state of mind. As she told reporters, Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her,” she added.
How USA Basketball Is Supporting Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner’s harsh sentencing was met with an instant outcry. Even President Biden refused to mince words as he called it “unacceptable” and proclaimed, “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney.” Going one step further, the US government reportedly began talks with Russia in the hopes of freeing Griner as part of a prisoner swap.
However, support for the basketball great reaches far beyond Capitol Hill. While there may not be a lot that her USA Basketball teammates can do to help politically, they’re making their voices heard and showing support any other way they can.
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In May 2022, for example, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced, per Reuters, that they would be stenciling her initials and jersey number – No. 42 – onto the courts of all 12 WNBA teams. “As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” she said.
Jump to July and every player taking part in the WNBA All-Star Game wore a No. 42 jersey emblazoned with Griner’s name during the second half of the televised game. Since Griner’s arrest, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) has also been tweeting about her situation non-stop and even helped launch a Change.org petition “demanding that lawmakers prioritize Griner’s return.”
The One Thing Brittney Griner’s Teammates Won’t Do
Brittney Griner’s USA Basketball teammates decided to show their unfaltering support for their star player during the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in a special way. The three-time defending champions traveled to Sydney, Australia to take part in the tournament from September 22 to October 1, 2022 and they kept the focus on Griner by refusing to wear her number on the court.
USA Basketball made the announcement on Twitter, writing that “USA Basketball continues to keep BG in our thoughts” and that “in her honor, no U.S. player will wear BG’s No. 15 in this competition.” No. 15 was the number Griner wore in international competitions.
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Speaking with Associated Press about the decision, USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley explained that “the best way to honor her was to not give her number out.” Calling the numbering system (which normally runs from four to 15) “very sacred,” he said they were willing to make the change to show their solidarity. “Now we’re giving out 16 because we don’t want to give away Brittney’s 15 since she would have been here,” he said, adding, “It’s a small way to pay homage to her and that we’re thinking of her.”
Opening up about the toll her absence has taken, USA coach Cheryl Reeve told AP they all think about her “every day.” Meanwhile, Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammate Kia Nurse shared, “BG is the best of the best when it comes to human beings. It was a lot this season to not have her on the court, to not have her spirit, her energy around.”
Is Kim Mulkey’s Silence ‘Cruel and Evil’?
Brittney Griner hasn’t just been top of mind for those who play with her but for the whole sports community. When current Baylor Bears women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen was asked about Griner in September 2022, she spoke about her for almost five minutes. “I see her as a mother, as a sister, as a spouse, as a daughter, as an unbelievable ambassador for the game of basketball,” she told reporters. Calling the ordeal a human rights issue, she added, “We should be doing everything in our power to get Brittney home.”
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However, there is one prominent person who has refused to speak out on the matter and that’s the former Baylor Bears women’s basketball coach, Kim Mulkey, who actually coached Griner when she was on the team from 2009 to 2013.
Her silence has elicited incredible blowback with former Baylor players slamming Mulkey on social media. “SILENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES, smh,” tweeted Chloe Jackson while Shakira Austin wrote, “It’s all a business smh once you no longer benefit their lives watch how they move after.” Even soccer great Megan Rapinoe weighed in on Mulkey’s response (or lack thereof), writing, “This is honestly just cruel and evil and even more honestly. IT’S SHOWING SIS. The hate is seeping out.”
The Power of Support Through Hardship
Brittney Griner’s family, friends, and teammates may only be able to show up for Griner through words and gestures rather than concrete legal actions, but the power of that kind of support is not to be underestimated.
As Mayo Clinic explains, “a strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times.” Of course Griner’s ordeal is an unprecedented situation that doesn’t even begin to be encompassed by the phrase “tough times” but as Megan Rapinoe so bluntly put it, silence can have a real negative impact and can be outright cruel.
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That’s because knowing that you have people vouching for you, thinking of you, and supporting you can have “far-reaching benefits for your health.” Benefits like easing emotional distress and boosting mental strength, as much as is possible during such a heartbreaking struggle.
As Ludy Green, PhD wrote in a Medium blog post, the power of support systems is truly valuable because it can help people through the darkest of times. Sharing a first-hand account, Green recalled how, in her greatest time of need, she learned how “vital” friendships can be, “not just with the practical matters but also by providing the nourishment and human warmth that my mind and soul needed.”
While offering words of support, publicly condemning Griner’s conviction, and retiring her number may seem like trivial symbolic gestures, they do hold weight. For one, her teammates’ efforts have kept her case in the spotlight and helped ensure her plight is not forgotten. For another, they’ve sent a clear message to Griner which she’s hopefully been able to receive and draw strength from: There are countless people who love and support her and they’re all standing with her in her time of need.