The NBA is a $10 billion corporation that has the power and reach to promote not only its teams and players, but also provoke discussion and debate around social issues. It has used that influence most prominently to combat racism in the United States.
But when it comes to Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who has been detained in Russia since February, NBA teams have been largely absent from the public campaign for her release. The NBA founded the WNBA and still owns about half of it, but the NBA has been relatively subdued outside of press conferences as Griner’s family, her agent and the women’s league and its players have led the public push for her freedom. NBA players have also shown support.
Officials in both leagues said they had initially kept quiet at the urging of U.S. government officials who worried that publicizing the case would backfire and put Griner in even greater danger. But even after the U.S. State Department said it had determined she had been “wrongfully arrested” and government officials began speaking regularly about Griner, the NBA and team owners remained largely silent, fueling feelings that the case has not received that kind of spotlight which Griner has received. supporters have demanded.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said publicly that the league and teams are using their influence and connections to help Griner in ways the public doesn’t see. It is hard to say whether they are doing enough when even experts in diplomacy disagree about what “enough” would be, or whether public or private advocacy would be more effective.
“There are no easy answers,” said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist who runs a political risk research and consulting firm. He added: “Could the NBA have done more? Yes, they could have.”
On the other hand, Bremmer said, pressure from the NBA could prompt Russia to ask for more in a deal to release Griner. Experts have suggested that a prisoner swap could free Griner.
“How you value all these things depends on your perspective,” Bremmer said.
The NBA Players Association said its members had been deeply concerned about Griner, pointing to the players’ public outpouring of support at playoff games and awards ceremonies and on social media. Silver and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert have said NBA owners also care, but have kept their advocacy out of the public eye. The New York Times contacted owners of all 30 NBA teams — directly or through representatives — and none agreed to be interviewed about Griner.
Through a spokesman, Silver declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement he repeated his public comments that the league had been “actively engaged” with government officials and experts.
“The NBA and its teams are also using their influence to draw attention to Brittney’s plight, but ultimately this is a matter for the United States government to resolve because of the serious and complex geopolitical issues at stake,” Silver said in the statement.
The nuance of the league’s position is not lost even on those who are most aware of what it means to be wrongfully detained abroad. Consider Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post columnist who was detained in Iran for a year and a half on trumped-up charges and released in a 2016 prisoner swap.
He prepared to ask Silver questions in June before the NBA Finals at a news conference, one of the commissioner’s few of the season.
“I wanted to put him on the spot,” Rezaian said of Silver. “‘As a company, what are you doing for this employee of yours?’
But before he got a chance, Silver beat him to it, saying the NBA and WNBA were working with the U.S. government and outside experts to try to expedite Griner’s release. Rezaian said he thought Silver’s comments were powerful and that it would have been smart to talk about Griner before he was asked.
“I thought it was wonderful that the commissioner used that moment of arguably the biggest platform of the year, or one of them, to bring attention to the issue,” Rezaian said. “If he can do it then, three and a half months into her custody, he could have done it earlier.
“But I know they were advised against it in the past. I don’t blame anyone for that. There is no official handbook for what to do when your loved one or employee is taken hostage by a hostile state.”
Griner, 31, has been detained since February 17 after Russian customs officials said they found hash oil in a vape cartridge in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Her trial began on 1 July and she pleaded guilty on 7 July. She said she had no intention of breaking the law when she traveled to play for a Russian women’s basketball team in the offseason from her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury.
Her next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. If she is formally convicted, which experts said was likely even before she pleaded guilty, Griner could face up to 10 years in a penal colony. The US State Department said it would work to negotiate her release regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Her public support has remained strong, despite her guilty plea.
“I get this question all the time — ‘Has the NBA been helpful?'” Engelbert said. “Extremely helpful. We share a brand. We have NBA after our name. NBA team owners have contacted me personally: ‘What can we do to help Brittney?'”
Engelbert said an NBA owner had connected her to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a State Department unit that handles the cases of Americans deemed wrongfully detained, even before Griner had earned that designation.
Negotiations to secure the release of prisoners abroad often take place quietly. It’s unclear what the NBA’s role has been in putting pressure on government officials or helping Griner’s family, but Engelbert said Silver had been personally involved in calling government officials on Griner’s behalf.
When the State Department announced that it had determined that Griner was wrongfully detained, the WNBA season was about to begin, but only eight NBA teams were still competing in the playoffs.
“It takes a while to come to the realization that the person you’re trying to influence is the president of the United States,” Rezaian said. “Because they are the only ones in a position to make the kind of concessions and decisions to make concessions that will free someone.”
He added later, “People come home when it becomes politically costly for a president for them not to come home.”
The WNBA’s teams have honored Griner in many ways, including fundraisers, court decals and T-shirts, and her family will still receive her entire Mercury salary this season. Some NBA players have spoken about her or worn clothing that drew attention to her detention. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns, who own the Mercury, added a sign to their court and have posted about Griner on their social media accounts, but few NBA teams have offered much vocal or public support.
Experts are divided on the impact of public pressure. Some believe it worsens Griner’s situation by giving the Russian government more leverage in negotiations. A Russian official said the publicity surrounding her case created “interference” in reaching a deal.
NBA team owners have not been part of the public campaign. At a summer league press conference in Las Vegas this month, Silver said Griner’s situation was not on the agenda at the league’s board meeting, but that individual owners had spoken to him about her.
The Times then contacted at least one owner from each team. Eleven representatives declined on behalf of owners, including one who would not even forward the request. A spokesman said the team’s owner was on vacation, and 16 teams did not respond. Two owners responded directly.
“I can say that I have every confidence that the NBA and WNBA league offices are doing everything in their power,” Jeanie Buss, controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, said in a text message.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to be interviewed, but said by email, “I hope she gets out soon.”
Five NBA teams—in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, DC—own WNBA teams. Owners for those teams declined to comment, but each of those WNBA teams has publicly endorsed Griner.
Engelbert said the NBA had not asked team owners to avoid talking about Griner. She is part of the NBA’s senior leadership team and reports to Silver.
“The proposal has been to support the administration and the State Department in the work they are doing in this complex situation to bring Brittney home,” Engelbert said.
Players have shown their support. During an NBA Players Association meeting in May, Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star who spent last season with the Lakers, said the players should use the Finals to highlight Griner.
June 2, the day of Silver’s NBA Finals news conference, Anthony posted a video on Twitter of itself to discuss Griner. He has 9.2 million followers.
“I wanted to use my voice to bring the basketball community together,” Anthony said in a statement to The Times.
At an NBA Finals practice two days after Anthony posted his video, nearly every member of the Boston Celtics wore a black T-shirt with orange lettering that said “We are BG.” Grant Williams, a Celtics forward and vice president of the players union, had the shirts shipped overnight for his teammates.
Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, have also spoken publicly about Griner.
Tamika Tremaglio, executive director of the NBA Players Association, said she had been in contact with Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, since soon after news broke of Griner’s incarceration about how NBA players could help.
When NBA union leaders met in Las Vegas this month, they asked for an update. Jackson, who was at the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, recorded a video that was shown to the NBA players.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Tremaglio said. “They were so thoughtful when it came to listening and hearing and understanding what happened. It’s something we as a union also support the women. This is something we were also critically concerned about.”
Rezaian said public support is important.
During his 544-day detention in Iran, some of his most hopeful moments had come when he had heard people talking about him, whether it was someone from The Washington Post or President Barack Obama.
“That kind of thing just floods you with a sense of being alive and also of power,” Rezaian said. “The walls may be up around you and you can’t break them down, but you’re still there. You still count. And people do what they can for you.”