In the early days of Brittney Griner’s imprisonment, as the nation learned that a top U.S. women’s basketball player had been detained in Russia on a drug charge, the conversation quickly focused on a comparison:
If this were a male athlete, not a female athlete, people would care a lot more about this story. If, say, LeBron James or Tom Brady were being held hostage by Vladimir Putin, well, they wouldn’t be hostages anymore. They’d already be home because America would have demanded it, right away.
It was a valid point, not that either James or Brady ever would have been in the position of having to leave their country to make a good living playing their sport as Griner did.
So someone had to create a similar demand for Griner, to make sure she wasn’t forgotten by reminding people how important she was.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, would admirably shoulder much of that burden, but she wouldn’t do it alone. It turns out she had a veritable battalion by her side, a group of women ready to fight for their teammate, colleague and friend: tall, basketball-playing women armed with social media accounts, a national stage and the savvy to turn their arenas into a nightly reminder of just who was missing.
In what just might be the finest hour for any U.S. professional sports league, Cherelle Griner had the WNBA on her side.
When have we ever seen something like this, an entire league becoming a public-relations machine for one cause, getting Griner back home? Her number 42 was everywhere: emblazoned on each team’s court, worn by every player during the second half of the league’s All-Star Game. Every chance players had, they posted about Griner on social media, or steered an interview away from its intended topic to discuss the unfairness of Griner’s captivity.
GRINER TIMELINE: Complete timeline leading up to WNBA star's release
It was contagious. NBA players soon were saying her name, and as summer turned to fall, an athlete who should have been a household name for years finally became one.
It worked. Griner, a WNBA and NCAA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time WNBA all-star, could not be ignored or forgotten. A national conversation had been built all around her. The next step had to be a deal to get her home, and that is exactly what happened this week.
“Let’s not forget BG’s fellow WNBA players,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a celebratory Thursday press conference. “They advocated for her every day, and the whole women’s basketball system. … It has been a total team effort. We use that analogy in sports all the time. But we could not have done this without the NBA. We could not have done this without Brittany’s agent, Brittany’s lawyers, the whole ecosystem around women’s sports, women’s basketball, sport in general.”
This is not the first time WNBA players have taken on an issue, pursued it relentlessly and won big in the end. After being among the first to wear “Black Lives Matter” warm-up shirts in 2016, WNBA players publicly supported the victorious Georgia Senate campaign of Rev. Raphael Warnock over then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, co-owner at the time of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, in the November 2020 general election and again in the January 2021 runoff.
It is fitting that this latest triumphant WNBA stand came in 2022, the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the law that opened the floodgates for girls and women to play sports. There is no denying the link between the two. The nation has created millions of strong-willed, tough-minded, confident, intelligent, caring female athletes.
The WNBA is full of these women. Of course they threw everything they had into getting Brittney Griner home, and of course, in the end, they succeeded.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner's fierce WNBA family worked tirelessly to get her home