Griner sentence sparks show of solidarity, calls for US action
LOS ANGELES, Aug 5, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun players observed 42 seconds of silence before their game on Thursday in solidarity with WNBA star Brittney Griner after she was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia.
The number honored Griner's jersey number 42 and the gesture brought tears to the eyes of players from both teams and from fans at Mohegan Sun Arena, where the moment ended with chants of "Bring her home!"
Griner was convicted and sentenced in a Russian court earlier Thursday on charges of smuggling cannabis vape cartridges into the country.
Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said before the game in Uncasville, Connecticut, that watching their star center receiving the sentence was devastating to the team -- even though it was no surprise.
"We knew this was coming, we've been prepared for it," Nygaard said, noting the low acquittal rates in Russian courts. "We weren't hanging our hopes on the Russian justice system.
The coach said "emotions have escalated during the day" for the team.
"We're going to go out and play this game, but how can we have our focus on this game? It's such an emotional day for us."
The verdict and sentence was widely condemned in the United States as "unjustified" and sparked urgent calls for the US government to bring Griner home.
"Today's verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained," said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a joint statement.
"The WNBA and NBA's commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States."
The Mercury said Thursday's events were the latest step in Griner's "nightmare" journey in Russia.
"While we know it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today's verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG."
- 'Every possible avenue' -
While Griner stars for the Mercury, like many WNBA players, she competes in an overseas league as well.
The six-foot-nine (2.06-meter) center was returning to her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, from the United States when she was detained in February.
"We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for six months," the Mercury said, while voicing faith the administration of US President Joe Biden "will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention."
In the wake of the verdict, Biden reiterated that the United States considers Griner's detention wrongful and vowed to "pursue every possible avenue" to repatriate her.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made a "substantial proposal" to Moscow to free Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said after the verdict the adminstration had again urged Russia to accept the offer.
Griner's agent, Lindsay Colas, said on Twitter that the sentence "goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn."
She praised the efforts of Biden and Blinken "to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home."
Not for the first time, Nygaard suggested that if Griner wasn't a Black, LGBT woman she wouldn't still be wrongfully detained in Russia.
"We know that Tom Brady wouldn't be in Russia, so the comparison that way is tough to see," Nygaard said, invoking superstar NFL quarterback Tom Brady.
But Nygaard praised the "tremendous" efforts of Biden and his administration in seeking the release of Griner and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained in Russia.
"What I do know is our government has really put itself behind BG and all other Americans -- we're learning a lot more about international wrongly detained Americans than we ever have," she said.