Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was scheduled to speak to her wife, Cherrelle, by phone Saturday, the couple’s fourth anniversary.
The call, which was approved by the Russian government and had been planned for two weeks, would have been the first time the couple spoke since Griner’s arrest Feb. 17. Griner reportedly tried to call her wife nearly a dozen times over several hours but never got through because the phone line at the American embassy in Russia was not staffed.
The State Department said Monday that the issue was “because of a logistical error,” but for Cherelle Griner and WNBA fans, it highlighted the fears and frustrations they have felt surrounding the U.S. government’s response to Griner’s arrest, which the State Department since has designated as “wrongful detainment.”
When news of Griner’s arrest first hit, her family requested privacy, wanting to avoid the WNBA star being used as a means to a political end. But as time went on and her detainment was continuously extended, the family reversed course and allowed supporters to speak out on her behalf.
In May, the WNBA began honoring Griner with a “BG42″ decal on all team courts. That same month, when Griner appeared in court handcuffed and hiding her face with her hoodie, fans took to Twitter, concerned not only for her safety but her mental health.
Using the hashtag #WeAreBG, activists, fans, media and players — current and former — have expressed their frustration and called out what they have deemed to be inaction by the Biden administration, echoing thoughts shared by Griner’s wife.
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” Cherrelle Griner told the Associated Press. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
Officials at the State Department met with members of the Mercury last week, but there are growing calls for President Biden to step in and meet with Cherelle Griner.
On Monday, racial injustice activist group Until Freedom and members of the WNBA fan community held a “Free Brittney Griner” rally and march in New York.
Media personality Arielle Chambers attended and spoke at the event. She described an emotional scene in which about 20 people stood silently with their fists raised in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building before marching through Harlem with attendees chanting Griner’s name. They stopped at the Harriet Tubman Memorial — the ultimate symbol of fighting for freedom, especially for a Black woman.
Chambers said attendees asked that Griner’s humanity be remembered as an aunt, daughter, friend and wife.
Khristina Williams, a WNBA insider and founder of GirlsTalkSportsTV, said she and Chambers were invited to attend the rally by Irv Roland, an assistant coach with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
“The whole purpose of the rally was not only to raise more awareness,” Williams told the Tribune, “but to continue to challenge President Biden and (Vice President) Kamala Harris to make more moves in terms of Brittney’s case, which is very unique, and I feel like more can be done.
“We want to make sure we keep her name out there. When it comes to Black women, but especially Black queer women in America, there isn’t a lot of support. We want to continue to keep that story out there and bring it more attention.”
A change.org petition calling for Griner’s return to the U.S. started by journalist and author Tamryn Spruill in March and signed by the WNBA players association had more than 266,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
The petition called on the Biden administration to do “whatever is necessary,” calling Griner’s detention a “human rights issue.” The petition also pointed to pay inequity as a reason players are forced to join teams overseas during the WNBA offseason.
“(A)s a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sport community, Brittney’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the safety of all athletes traveling to compete internationally and the sanctity of sport,” the petition states.
Griner has been detained nearly 130 days. On June 14, her detainment was extended until at least July 2.
“It is not difficult to imagine that if BG were here with us this season, she would once again be selected and would, no doubt, show off her incredible talents,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “So, it is only fitting that she be named as an honorary starter today and we continue to work on her safe return to the U.S.”