The number one college women’s basketball team played the number two team and both team coaches showed support for imprisoned WNBA star Brittney Griner by the shirts they were wearing. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer wore long-sleeved shirts honoring Brittney Griner during their match-up Sunday at Maples Pavilion.
No big deal, perhaps. Or maybe the show of support keeps Griner’s imprisonment in a Russian women’s penal colony on the minds of anyone in the Biden administration who can help bring the American basketball player home. There may or may not be a prisoner swap being negotiated and pressure should remain on the Russians to come to the table. The prisoner swap affects another American, a former Marine, who is being held on alleged espionage charges. The State Department refers to Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
The two coaches stood together before the game began during a moment of silence for Griner. There are personal connections the coaches have with Griner. They acknowledge that other Americans are being detained overseas yet they are focusing on Griner’s case because of their friendships with her.
“I went up and wrote a letter,” said Staley, who wore a “Free BG” cap after her Gamecocks won 76-71 in overtime. “Tara is leading this campaign on this particular campus, and we both know Brittney. She’s been part of our basketball family, and she’s in a fight for her life. I know there are other Americans that are wrongly detained, and obviously we want them all to come home, but when you have a relationship and a friendship with someone, it’s personal.
“It’s a personal fight for us to bring her home, and every little bit counts. Every little bit, every letter. … If it was anyone’s loved one, loved ones, you would fight for them. I do think there’s a waymaker out there that’s going to make the way for her to get home a lot sooner hopefully than a lot of people expect. I’m one that’s going to think optimistically and prayerfully that she gets home soon.”
The t-shirts worn by the coaches are expected to be available for sale later this month. The message on the back reads “”Dear BG: We love you and are fighting for you. Millions of us are uplifting your name every chance we get, and we won’t stop until you are home. We hope our love and support reaches you and ultimately sets you free.” A portion of the sales will go to the Bring Our Families Home Campaign and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. Both organizations advocate for the rights of Americans detained overseas.
A moment of silence for Griner has been normal practice for Stanford home games this season. The players wore “BG” patches on their uniforms. A video message in support of Griner is shown on the big screen before tipoff. On Saturday, Stanford also set up a letter-writing station to send cards o Griner.
VanDerveer’s relationship with Griner goes back to her college days at Baylor University. The Baylor Lady Bears team finished a 40-0 NCAA title season in 2011-12 with a championship game victory over Stanford during Griner’s college career. VanDerveer spoke about her memories of Griner before the game and then brought up Griner at the start of the post-game news conference.
“It’s been 276 days since Brittney Griner has been incarcerated in Russia,” VanDerveer said. “Hopefully, we brought some good attention to that. We’ve been saying something every game and having a moment of silence for her. We need to bring her home.”
Something that the families and loved ones of Americans being held in other countries have learned is that in order to help bring about their release, it is often beneficial to get loud. It used to be that families were told to remain quiet and not do anything to garner attention. They were told to just let the State Department professionals do their jobs. However, in recent years, that has not always proved to be good advice. It seems that once frustrated families start speaking up in the press and putting pressure on the White House to do whatever is possible to bring about the release of detained Americans, then progress is made. The families of Griner and Paul Whelan, the former Marine who is said to be a part of a potential prisoner swap, are speaking out and asking for the prisoner swap to go through.
It’s all complicated by the fact that Griner, in her case, did violate Russian law. She was in possession of vape cannisters containing cannabis oil that were found in her luggage during an inspection at a Moscow airport. Russia has serious drug laws and officials don’t mess around with violators. This is something that is well-known, certainly by travelers, and whether it was intentional or not, it was a bone-headed chance that Griner took. As an experienced American traveler and a sports celebrity she should have known she was under additional scrutiny. It was not her first time traveling to Russia to play there in the WNBA off-season.
Nonetheless, Russian prisons are brutal and no one should wish a fellow American to be detained there, especially with a long sentence of nine years for vape cannisters. Let’s hope the prisoner swap involving Griner and Whelan can be worked out. The State Department isn’t sounding too hopeful, though, at this point.
“I’m not going to comment on specifics of any proposal other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate on good faith,” said Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel on Friday’s Department of State briefing.
Patel said the U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that “substantial offer” and has proposed “alternative potential ways” to move forward with the Russian government. However, he said Russian officials are not cooperating as much as the US was hoping they would.
“The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channels, or any other channel for that matter, runs counter to its public statements,” Patel said. “Ultimately here, actions speak louder than words.”
Putin’s invasion into Ukraine complicates things, too. The United States gives Ukraine the vast majority of its financial and military equipment support in its fight against Russian annexation.
I don’t agree with the White House that Griner is “wrongfully detained.” She violated the law. Americans have to respect the laws of the countries they are visiting or stay home. It’s as simple as that. It’s what we expect of those who visit our country.