On Saturday, it was the fourth wedding anniversary of WNBA star Brittney Griner and her wife, Cherelle. It was also her 121st day being wrongfully detained in Russia. As had been arranged through Brittney’s lawyers and U.S. embassy in Russia, Brittney Griner was to call the embassy, who would patch her call through to Cherelle, for what would be their first phone call in over four months. Cherelle went to bed at 5pm here in the states, in anticipation of waking up at midnight to account for the time difference. She waited. And waited. Brittney never called.
Originally, Cherelle Griner worried for her wife and wondered if Russian authorities had nixed or blocked the call. Today, she found out the reality was even more needlessly cruel. Brittney Griner called the embassy in Moscow — as promised — eleven times over several hours. Each time the call went unanswered. Due to a logistical error, no one was there to pick up.
Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press that a contact in the U.S. government apologized to her for the error. She also learned that the number Brittney Griner had been told to dial typically processes calls from prisoners on Mondays through Fridays, but not weekends. “But mind you,” Griner said in the interview, “this phone call had been scheduled for almost two weeks — with a weekend date.”
Because no one caught it, Griner spent her wedding anniversary in tears. “This was such a big moment because this would have been the first time where I truly could tell if she’s OK,” Cherelle Griner said. “This would have been the first time for me to actually just hear her in real time and to truly know if she’s OK or to know if she’s seconds away from not being in existence anymore.”
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
Of course, she’s absolutely right.
I am not expert on international relations, the war in Ukraine, hostages, Russia, or a million other topics relevant to Brittney Griner’s case. I know that for a very long time everyone involved was counseled that the smart and best strategy for Brittney Griner’s release was to play it quiet and not raise the profile of the WNBA superstar and twice gold medal Olympian, in hopes that if she did not seem valuable, she would have little use for Putin and might be released. It’s clear by now that the original strategy did not work.
In May, after being held in Russia since February due to vape cartridges containing cannabis oil supposedly found in her luggage, the State Department designated Brittney Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affair — effectively the government’s top hostage negotiator. It was also in May when Cherelle Griner first reported that despite Brittney’s fame and service to this country (again, she’s a multiple-time decorated Olympian, largely believed to have been targeted specifically because of that exact fact) — she has never had as much as an obligatory “your country is with of you” phone call from the President.
Every time I try to write about this, I try to find words for watching as arguably the most famous Black lesbian athlete, not just of her time but period, spends what is now her 123rd day alone in a Russian cell while seemingly our nation just… allows it? That time ticks by and her name fades again and again from headlines. That WNBA players are wearing her face on their sweatshirts, playing on courts emblazoned with her jersey number, but last week when the NBA finished their league finals — with an indescribably larger audience and the biggest international stage BG was going to have for public pressure — they wore “We Are BG” shirts once to a Celtics practice (not a game, the practice) and spoke of her case during the pre-game, again, one time? When we know that one of the only reasons Brittney was playing in Russia was because pay discrepancy between the women’s and men’s leagues is so cataclysmic to begin with?? And yes, that in one hundred and twenty-three days, the President of the United States has not been able to find even two minutes to call the wife of an Olympian, so that she knows that she is not alone in her grief? And now the U.S. embassy, charged with looking out for her well being, couldn’t bother to correctly coordinate the most basic schedules? There are not words for that.
There’s only an emptying sick in the bottom of my stomach that will not go away.
I’d say it’s shameful, but that shame is not mine. I don’t need a reminder how little a Black lesbian’s life or love is worth, no matter how well she dribbles a ball.
What I do feel is enraged and helpless. Our senior editor, Heather, and I keep tag-teaming updates on Brittney Griner’s case because it feels like if we don’t do our part to keep her name in headlines and Google searches, who will? I don’t know if it’s making any difference, to be honest. But I know that Cherelle Griner should not feel alone. I know that Brittney doesn’t deserve to have to call eleven times (can you imagine what it took to be able to make eleven phone calls in her situation?) and not have someone on the other end of the phone!
So here I am, on Juneteenth, during Pride month, writing another small drop in the bucket post because the other choice is unbearable.
Bring BG Home.
OMG and WTF?!? I don’t even know what to say except thank you for continuing to cover this.
For context, the Moscow embassy is operating with a skeleton crew because staff was relocated for their own safety and strategic reasons due to the war in Ukraine. What happened is still unacceptable of course, but it’s worth noting that everyone left at the Moscow embassy is operating in extraordinary circumstances.
this is so reasonable.
then when i consider Mrs. Griner sitting there for hours with nothing, and BG dialing and dialing and dialing, the heartbreak, it’s so utterly unreasonable.
then i can’t help but wonder why Mrs. Griner didn’t have a contact in the event that something went wrong? how does the State Department not have someone on-call for her 24/7 until BG comes home? i’m a random internet stranger, and have the benefit of hindsight, certainly, and yet… it’s hard not to look at which balls get dropped and feel like demographics play more of a role than they should.
thank you for the context.
It is 100% heartbreaking and wrong. From the outside it feels impossible to really know what’s happening, who’s screwing up, and why. The most vivid parallel in my mind is the Pryors-Abel swap (dramatized in Bridge of Spies). Even when the US citizen in trouble was a white male Air Force pilot and spy, arguably more valuable than any other potential asset by conventional standards, the negotiation process with the USSR during high tensions was still an absolute mess. I’m not saying there isn’t a misogynoir aspect though, there very well could be.
whoa, that is some knowledge drop. thank you.
i think i only mean that the stakes feel irresponsibly low for the situation. i can’t possibly know intentions, which is obvious, but maybe there’s a corollary to the dynamic where sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tests positive for a nonperformance-enhancing drug and is dq’d from competition, but skater Kamila Valieva tests positive for an actual performance enhancer and is allowed to compete, albeit provisionally. there are nuances, sure, but here again, things go more awry for the person with darker skin.
the context is important, but i think the way we assimilate it somehow supports things never leveling up for the people who enjoy less of the franchise democracy should provide, and is worth noting. empathy should go hand-in-hand with ‘do better’.
thank you for the discussion – here and below.
Thank you for continuing to cover this!
gosh, the number of times i fuck up in a day, i see how this happened. but it’s pretty easy to see that if this was an nba player staffing the call would get remembered.
also, i am a day-one wnba fan. i appreciate the wnba players are underpaid. it seems that the league doesn’t generate the revenue to pay players what overseas leagues can. fair to note this is not the same issue as with the women’s national soccer team, who was generating more dollars and engagement than the men’s team, while being compensated less. Athletes Unlimited is playing softball right now and lost some if its regular players to overseas dollars. i don’t have a suggestion for how to improve pay for women’s leagues, but a thing folks who believe that women’s sports deserve better pay could do is to watch whatever sport you like when its broadcast (with the commercials). viewership data would support more ad revenue, more broadcasts, more leverage for negotiating better pay.
wait, i guess i do have a suggestion. wondering if others do?
thank you for the continued coverage. on top of the recent not unexpected extension of BG’s detainment, this is so important to keep in front of people.
Also for cable cutters, just buying a subscription! I don’t always have time for any live sports, but when I have the disposable income I buy a WNBA League Pass and a couple months of Paramount+ during the NWSL season. The WNBA League Pass is only $25 a year.
i don’t have time for every game, but i make sure they play on whatever media i can access them through so that the viewing stats go up. even if you don’t like a/any sport, a little effort could help women’s sports leagues increase revenue.
how immensely frustrating and cruel. there is no reason that eleven (eleven!) calls should have been unanswered and from my armchair expertise i find it difficult to understand why there’s so little movement on her detainment in the first place. hard to imagine an NBA star or a white athlete in the same position
This is infuriating. Thank you for continuing to keep this story up front.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for continuing to cover this. Thinking and praying for BG and Cherelle with broken heart.
The RAGE. The gall. Thank you for continuing to cover this, and this piece conveys the emotional experience of watching this so well. If they can’t get a call off correctly, how much faith can anyone have in the US ability to arrange her to come home?
Awful, and thank you for continuing to put her name forward.
This is heartbreaking & infuriating at the same time. I have to assume if she was a cis white dude she would be out by now.
It is nearly impossible to make a phone call out of Russia since they nearly disconnected from the internet/international telecom to help information control and prevent western cyber operations.
It is also alleged by the Europeans and Ukrainians that Russia has set up “de-nazificaiton” camps holding between a few hundred to 1.1 millions of ukranian citizens forced from their homes aka Concentration Camps. They arrest protestors by the tens of thousands and many “disappear”.
On January 23 (before Feb 17th) the Embassy put out a Level 4 warning to leave Russia *immediately* (the highest level of warning) and they may be unable to help as they too were following their own warning, besides the expulsion of several diplomats by Russia. Outside of Moscow (Yekaterninburg is ~1800KM from Moscow) help might be impossible. Given Putin’s complete disregard for international law and norms, the staff is very literally risking their own lives to maintain the services they are. There are several publicly known Americans and other Western nationals being held as basically hostages by Russia, she is one of them, probably the highest profile one. The embassy screwed up, but let’s not go too nuts on them.
So. much. rage.