Are race, gender slowing Brittney Griner’s return? Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard raises question

(Video by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – As the WNBA schedule moves into June, Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard is worried that Brittney Griner’s imprisonment has taken a backseat to basketball and box scores.

“A player that played in the championship game is in a Russian prison!” Nygaard said Tuesday before the Mercury’s loss to Chicago. “Come on, y’all, the whole thing should be about that!”

Over 100 days have passed since the Mercury center was jailed in Russia for allegedly possessing vaporizers that contained an illegal substance – hashish oil, a form of concentrated marijuana – in her suitcase.

The seven-time All-Star arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport, 18 miles northwest of Moscow, on February 17 and has been held captive since. Griner was returning to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League, as she has done every WNBA off-season since 2014.

Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard is frustrated that more isn’t being done to help free Brittney Griner from imprisonment in Russia. (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

Nygaard referenced the Gabby Petito case that made national headlines late last year and into this year, and how stories about the missing vlogger received more attention than Griner’s imprisonment.

The Petito story started late last summer, and quickly spread across major social media platforms. Social media “detectives” on Tik-Tok, Twitter and Instagram tracked her moves on a daily basis, and theories erupted regarding her disappearance.

“That white woman that was hiking, and we did everything to find her,” Nygaard said. “She was from Florida, and she went on a hike and her boyfriend killed her. How much attention went to that? BG hasn’t got half that attention. And that’s a crime. And that’s a statement about our society and who we value and we need to change that.”

Nygaard also said she believes a male pro basketball player would have reached U.S. soil by now.

“If this was an NBA player, this person would be home,” Nygaard said.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, in a recent interview with ESPN, said President Joe Biden has the authority to bring Brittney back home.

“There is one person that can go get her, and that’s our president,” Griner said. “He has that power. You know, I’m just like, ‘Why are we not using it? Like, urgently, use it.’ We’re expecting him to use his power to get it done.”

Nygaard liked the attention the story was attracting nationwide.

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“The news of the 100 days has brought great attention to the situation which is, in a way, a real positive, where we’re now asking about the Biden administration actively to do everything they can to bring BG home and requesting the petitions for people to sign,” Nygaard said. “I think that energy has changed and brought this more to the forefront. There’s been such an outpouring from the week of support.”

However, she believes more has to be done by the current administration and the national media for the public to be aware of this crisis.

“We are the greatest country in the world,” Nygaard said. “We are the leader of the free world. As a leader of the free world, we should be able to bring an American citizen who is wrongfully imprisoned in another country home, however possible.”

After the 73-70 loss on Tuesday, Nygaard was asked about the Griner situation. She was surprised that one of Chicago’s best known figures offered his assistance.

“Reverend Jesse Jackson came up to us as a team, and he specifically grabbed me and he wanted to know what he could do to help,” Nygaard said. “It’s such an honor to meet him for me personally and for our team, but to know that this encounter that happened right after the game, that the Jesse Jackson is trying to bring our teammate home, it brought me almost to tears. And so openly.”

Sameer Malla sam-ear mall-uh (he/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sameer Malla expects to graduate in August 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism and also has a master’s in geographic information systems from University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Malla has written for the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Ruby Arora(she/her)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Ruby Arora is working on a second master’s degree in sports journalism. Arora has interned under NBA managers and NFL affiliates, most recently Pacers Sports & Entertainment. Her first master’s degree is in sports management; she also has a business marketing degree. Arora has a graduate assistantship at the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at ASU.

Reece Andrews REES AN-drooz (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Reece Andrews expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Andrews has worked for the State Press and at WCSN. He has also been in Cronkite News Los Angeles.