Former coach keeps spotlight on Russian detention of Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner in a 2016 file photo. The Phoenix Mercury center has been held in a Russian jail since Feb. 17, sparking an outpouring of support from friends, fans and teammates demanding her release. (File photo by Jaclyn Chung/Cronkite News)

Brittney Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February for allegedly having vape cartridges in her luggage that contained hashish oil. She has since been charged by Russian authorities with drug transportation. (Screenshot courtesy of customs.gov.ru)

WASHINGTON – A plain shirt, a pin, a number.

For the past 41 days, basketball legend Dawn Staley has posted that photo to her social media accounts, just one part of the outpouring of support for Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who has been held in a Russian jail since Feb. 17.

The pin is the orange-and-black “WeAreBG” logo sported by Griner’s supporters, and the number is a count of the days Griner has been held – 120 as of Friday.

“She’s a wife, she’s a daughter, she’s a legend, she’s an Olympian, she’s representing this country, she is highly recognizable,” said Staley, who coached Griner in the last two Olympics and considers her a “dear friend.”

“I feel bad that she has spent a third of a year of her life and counting in a Russian prison, that our country has deemed her as being wrongfully detained,” Staley said during The 19th’s 2022 Summit Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary or Title IX.

Staley said she believes public and private groups are going everything they can to bring Griner home, but that she plans to keep shining a spotlight on the issue.

Griner, like many WNBA players, plays overseas on the off-season and was headed to her team in Russia on Feb. 17 when she was stopped while passing through security at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Officials claimed they found vaporizers containing hashish oil in her luggage and have held her since, on a drug transportation charge.

The U.S. government on May 3 determined that Griner had been “wrongfully detained,” but efforts to win her release have failed so far. On Tuesday, a Russian court extended her detention until July 2 so investigators could continue their work, according to news reports, pushing Griner’s detention to at least 135 days.

Griner is likely facing tough conditions in prison, Staley said. As a 6-foot-9-inch athlete, she probably can’t fit comfortably in the beds. And in terms of food, “Brittney likes the good honey buns,” Staley said with a smile.

Despite Griner’s continued detention, Staley said she believes the government is working on her case.

“I don’t think they’re just sitting on their hands on this, I don’t,” Staley said. “I do think that these things take time.”

That echoed statements earlier this week by Mercury players after players, staff and representatives of the WNBA players union met with State Department officials to discuss Griner’s case.

“They (State Department officials) encouraged us to keep speaking her name, to keep holding them accountable,” said Mercury forward Brianna Turner said in a statement.

Staley coached Griner for the U.S. women’s national basketball team when it won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where she was head coach, and was an assistant coach on the 2016 Rio Olympics, when Griner and the U.S. women also won gold.

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For the past 14 years, Staley has also coached the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, who won the NCAA women’s basketball championship in 2017 and again this year when they topped the University of Connecticut.

At The 19th event Thursday, Staley spoke about how she advocated for equal pay after seeing her counterparts being paid more, despite having fewer wins and championships.

“We (the women’s team) have had sustained success over the past 10 years and my male counterpart did not have that same type of sustained success,” Staley said. “He got more of a raise than I did and our success versus their success, it’s not comparable.”

Staley had a win in the movement toward equal pay in October when she signed a seven-year, $22.4 million contract with the Gamecocks. It made her one of the highest-paid women’s basketball coaches in the country – but only matched the salary of Gamecocks men’s coach Frank Martin, who was fired in March after a disappointing season.

“I choose to utilize that instance to raise the awareness of equal pay,” Staley said. “You do have to self-advocate.”

But for now, Staley is advocating for Griner – and others. She called for all Americans who are being wrongfully detained in any country to be brought home.

“Let’s bring them home,” she said of the more than 40 Americans who the State Department has classified as “wrongful detainees” around the globe. “I wouldn’t want anybody to have to endure what she’s (Griner) been enduring.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Morgan Fischer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in political science. Fischer has worked as politics editor for The State Press and interned at RightThisMinute.

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