Brittney Griner meets with President Biden, pleads for release of detainees

Brittney Griner at the White House Correspondent's Dinner (screenshot via CSPAN / Youtube).

A year ago, the U.S. State Department had just changed Brittney Griner’s status to “wrongful detention.” It was two months to the day since the Russian Customs Service had revealed that the Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all star basketball player had been detained at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York. “A working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage.” 

Griner had been detained back on February 17. Officials accused Griner of smuggling “significant amounts of a narcotic substance,” a crime that though untrue, resulted in Griner being sentenced to nearly a decade in prison on August 4. She was moved to a Russian penal colony where conditions were so harsh she was forced to cut off her waist-length braids because they would freeze when she washed her hair.

Griner was finally released from Russian detention on December 8 — more than 10 months since she was first stopped by Russian agents on February 17. The Biden administration secured her release through a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

That long, arduous ordeal, during which Griner had written to President Biden saying she feared she would never be released, seemed almost forgotten on April 29 when Griner and her wife Cherelle were the guests of CBS News anchor Gayle King to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). Prior to the event, Brittney and Cherelle met with President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. It was a first-time meeting for the basketball star and her first opportunity to thank Biden personally for the administration’s work in obtaining her release from Russia.

Gayle King shared a video on Instagram of the Griners’ reactions to the meeting. King said, “Finally met President Biden, face to face for the first time at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner…..a full circle moment for them after the year she’s endured….and with wife @cherelletgriner (as always) by her side…I call that a SPECTACULAR day for the happy for them!” 

Both Brittney and Cherelle spoke on King’s video — both smiling and seemingly excited about the event. Cherelle Griner had met with the President several times prior to the WHCD as the two worked together to get Brittney released. 

“Just got done meeting President Biden and it was amazing,” Brittney said on King’s Instagram.

She added, “It was emotional, that’s for sure. I’ll say that. It was emotional for both of us. It was especially for me.”

King asked Brittney what Biden had said to her and she replied that she “thought it was pretty cool” that the president said he was a fan of hers. “He kept saying how big of a fan he was of mine and how much he loved the way I play basketball,” Brittney said.

Cherelle added, “It was a full circle moment to finally meet with him, not by myself, but with BG as well. It was just amazing.”

On Sunday, Brittney and Cherelle posted a series of photos from the meeting and the WHCD. “We are in awe from The White House Correspondents’ Association’s dinner last night,” the couples’ joint post said. “The first amendment is so important and we’re grateful to live in a country that recognizes freedom of speech.”

Cherelle and Brittney added, “Major thank you to the courageous journalists from our past, present, and future for truth-telling and being the foundation for radical change. Our prayers go out to the families of Evan Gershkovich (Russia) and Austin Tice (Syria) — reporting is not a crime and we must bring them home.”

The Griners also thanked King and “the entire CBS family” for inviting them to the event. “Your hospitality was unmatched,” they said. 

At the WHCD, Biden spoke directly to Griner and about her ordeal. 

Biden said, “Brittney Griner is here tonight with her wife, Cherelle. Where are you, kid? Stand up.”

As the 6’9″ Griner stood, the crowd cheered and whistled and gave her a standing ovation. Biden continued, “I love this woman! Love you, kid. This time last year we were afraid for you, Brittney. I hope you know how hard all of us were fighting for your release. It’s great to have you home.”

Biden said, “I can hardly wait to see you back on the court, kid.”

It was a powerful moment. But for all the positive and upbeat responses of Brittney, Cherelle, and Biden, the fact remains that within that large gathering of hundreds of journalists and other Washington power brokers, almost no one had written about Griner during her nearly year-long detention. Almost no one had called for her release. PGN was the only newspaper in the country to report consistently about Griner, contacting the State Department weekly as well as Russian officials.

Biden devoted some of his speech at the WHCD to the wrongful detention of journalists Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal, being held in Russia, and freelancer Austin Tice, held in Syria. But the truth is, just as those journalists are political prisoners of two authoritarian regimes, so too was Brittney Griner. 

Yet for nearly the entirety of Griner’s wrongful detention, she was never referred to in mainstream media that way. The lack of involvement and even basic information about Griner’s imprisonment was highlighted in a long exchange on CNN after the WHCD. 

In the recap by the CNN news panel, consultant LZ Granderson, a former senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and a co-host of SportsNation on ESPN, talked about Griner’s hair. He said that her shorn head was a statement about her emotional journey and he wanted to know more about what it meant. He said he was shocked that she had “cut her locks” and talked about how much his locks mean to him.

CNN Anchor John Berman and CNN Congressional Correspondent Jessica Dean, both white, had no idea. Then Dean got word from CNN research that Griner had cut her hair when she got home from Russia, which is untrue. I tweeted the facts to Granderson, with an attached story about how Griner had been forced to cut her hair in the penal colony because it was so cold her hair froze before it could dry.

That the entire team at CNN was oblivious to this and also unable to Google “Griner cuts braids,” which would have called up PGN’s story as well as others, is indicative of how uninvolved even career sports writers were in Griner’s story.

Months after Griner’s release, she is still getting harassment from the right; there was even a reference to her being released for an arms dealer by GOP consultant and former Trump aide Scott Jennings during the WHCD discourse on CNN. 

Griner didn’t discuss the harassment that has been prevalent online in her first press conference since her release.  

Griner began to cry when the first reporter asked about how she stayed resilient during her imprisonment.

“Just digging deep, honestly,” Griner said. “I know this sounds so small, but, you know, dying in practice and hard workouts. You find a way to just grind it out. Just put your head down and just keep moving forward. You know, you can never stand still.”

Griner said that despite her isolation in the Russian prisons, she was aware of the support from fans and the efforts from U.S. officials to bring her home.”It made me a little bit more comfortable,” she said. “It made me a little bit… have hope, which is a really hard thing to have. It’s a dangerous thing to have. Because, you know, when it doesn’t work, it’s so crushing.”

Since her release, Griner has advocated for the return of all Americans detained abroad. Griner and wife Cherelle have focused on highlighting the plight of other detainees, including former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, whom negotiators tried to include in the swap that brought Griner home, and Gershkovich, who was detained in late March.

Griner said she hopes what happened to her will illumine the vast pay disparities between women and men basketball players that has pushed women to play overseas, often in totalitarian countries like Russia.

She announced in April that she will tell her “raw, emotional” story in a new memoir, and said she hoped her book would raise awareness about other Americans who had been wrongfully detained abroad.

“Readers will hear my story and understand why I’m so thankful for the outpouring of support from people across the world,” she wrote in a post on Instagram.

In the memoir, Griner will describe “the terrifying aspects of day-to-day life in a women’s penal colony,” said a statement from Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher, and Penguin Random House, which will produce the audiobook. The book is expected to be released in the spring of 2024.

On May 1 the Griners appeared at the Met Gala, again spreading their message. 

When speaking on Vogue’s red carpet livestream, Cherelle took a moment to remember the hardship the couple faced one year ago. “This time last year, I was missing my wife, so to have her right here, to be in this moment — breathtaking,” she said.

“It’s everything just to be here with my wife and just able to be here,” Brittney added. “It means so much. Get to see this event a lot and actually live it. It’s amazing.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.