For the first time in a while, Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, felt hopeful about Brittney Griner.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, had spoken on the phone with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday morning. That evening, Jackson attended a rally to support Brittney Griner at the Footprint Center arena in Phoenix. It had been hosted by the Phoenix Mercury and Representative Greg Stanton, Democrat of Arizona, with hundreds of Griner’s supporters on hand.
“It was emotional, it was a celebration, it was a renewed hope and renewed spirit,” Jackson said. “And yet, we are very mindful that we are not near the end.”
Jackson spoke Thursday afternoon, hours after Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a court near Moscow. Griner, the star Mercury center, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, accused of having hashish oil in her luggage at a Russian airport. Her trial on the drug charges began on July 1. But despite her guilty plea on Thursday, the support she has received from her representatives, friends, family, teammates and others has not waned.
“I think it made us more resolved to demonstrate our support for her and to recognize that Russia’s process is its own,” Jackson said. “It’s nothing like ours. And yet try to stay hopeful that there’s some forward progress to getting her home.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, called Griner a “model of courage” in a statement on Twitter on Thursday.
“BG’s service as an Olympian and global sport ambassador, caring for those most in need, has always distinguished her; but BG is also a human being whose family misses her,” Kagawa Colas said. “She deserves our compassion, understanding, love and support.”
Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, who has been working to secure Griner’s release, urged caution in reacting to her guilty plea, calling her prosecution a “sham trial” on Twitter.
“Remember that we should not draw any serious conclusions from this and that she was wrongfully detained in the first place,” Allred said.
W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released a statement Thursday afternoon.
“Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained in Russia, and nothing that happened today changes that 140 days later,” Engelbert said. She added: “She has the wholehearted and unconditional support of the entire W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. family, who eagerly await her safe return.”
The U.S. State Department first announced that Griner had been classified as “wrongfully detained” in May and said it would look to negotiate her release regardless of the result of her trial.
On Thursday, a Russian diplomat suggested to reporters in Moscow that the public clamor about Griner’s release — which he attributed to the Biden administration — was detrimental to getting a deal done.
Griner’s supporters, though, have long believed that calling public attention to her situation was necessary to get the attention of the Biden administration. After the State Department classified Griner as wrongfully detained, her closest supporters began to feel comfortable drawing attention to her detention. Many fans have been vocal since February.
Starting in early May, Kagawa Colas joined with Griner’s family, the W.N.B.A. and its players’ union and the Mercury to start an advocacy campaign with the hashtag #WeAreBG. Several W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. players began speaking out about Griner’s situation. The N.B.A.’s Boston Celtics wore T-shirts that said #WeAreBG during one N.B.A. finals practice.
In June, Kagawa Colas coordinated with dozens of organizations that represent people of color, women and members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community to send a letter to Biden and Harris urging them to make a deal to bring Griner home.
On Thursday, the W.N.B.A. players’ union released a statement that positioned the organization alongside those groups.
“The administration needs to know that this powerful collective is behind them and supports whatever needs to be done to get B.G., Paul Whelan and other detained U.S. nationals home right away,” the statement read.
Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018. He was convicted of espionage in a Russian court in 2020.
This weekend, the W.N.B.A. will host its All-Star Game and other competitions in Chicago. They are an annual celebration of the league’s best players, and Griner has been selected as an All-Star seven times. The league named her as an honorary starter for the All-Star Game on Sunday.
“Sends a very, very strong message from the league recognizing that we are missing not just one of the game’s biggest, brightest stars but an individual who is just very important to us outside of this game,” Jackson said.
Before the game, the Rev. Al Sharpton announced he would hold a news conference on Friday in Chicago with Cherelle Griner, Jackson and Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who is the president of the players’ union.
“Brittney has admitted to making a mistake, and I hope the Russian authorities recognize that humbling act and respond with compassion,” Sharpton said in a statement. “She is in the fight of her life right now, which is why we’ll be in Chicago to show our support for Brittney and for the administration and their efforts to bring her home as soon as possible. We must all continue to pray she finds strength through this challenging time.”
The W.N.B.A. players’ union sometimes calls its membership The 144 — a reference to the 12 players on each of the 12 teams in the league. Jackson noted that the All-Star Game would take place on the 143rd day of Griner’s detention.
“It reminds us all — at least those of us who have engaged in this frustrating process of counting the days — it reminds us that we are not The 144 without Brittney Griner,” Jackson said. She added: “The symbolism of that is not lost on any one of us.”