The NBA is a $10 billion company that has the strength and ability to promote not only its teams and players but to generate discussion and debate on social issues. I have used this influence most prominently to fight racism in the United States.
However, when it came to Britney Greiner, the WNBA star who has been detained in Russia since February, the NBA teams have been mostly absent from the public campaign for her release. The National Basketball Association founded the WNBA and still owns about half of it, but the NBA was relatively silent outside press conferences as the Greiner family, her agent, the women’s league and players led the public pressure for her freedom. The NBA players also showed support.
Officials at both tournaments said they were initially silent when urging US government officials who were concerned that publicizing the case would backfire and further jeopardize Greiner. But even after the US State Department said it had determined she was “unlawfully detained” and government officials began talking regularly about Grenier, NBA members and team owners remained mostly quiet, fueling sentiment that the case did not shed light on Grenier. Supporters demanded.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, has publicly stated that the league and its teams are using their influence and relationships to help Griner in ways that the public does not see. It is difficult to determine whether they are doing enough when even experts in diplomacy disagree about what would be “sufficient” or whether public or private advocacy would be more effective.
“There are no easy answers,” said Ian Bremmer, a political science professor who runs a political risk research and consulting firm. He added, “Could the NBA have done more? Yes, they could have done that.”
On the other hand, Bremer said, pressure from the NBA could push Russia to ask for more in a deal to release Grenier. Experts suggested that a prisoner exchange could free Griner.
“Your assessment of all these things depends on your point of view,” Bremer said.
The NBA Players Association said its members are deeply concerned about Griner, and noted the players’ public offers of support at playoffs, award shows and on social media. Silver and WNBA commissioner Kathy Engelbert said NBA owners are also concerned but have kept their invitation out of the public eye. The New York Times contacted the owners of all 30 NBA teams — directly or through representatives — and none of them agreed to be interviewed by Grenier.
Through a spokesperson, Silver declined to be interviewed for this article, but reiterated in a statement his public statements that the association is “actively engaged” with government officials and experts.
“The NBA and its teams use their influence to draw attention to Britney’s situation, but ultimately this is a matter that the United States government must resolve due to the serious and complex geopolitical issues at play,” Silver said in the statement.
The nuances of a league position are not lost on even those who are fully aware of what it means to be unjustly held abroad. Take, for example, Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post opinion writer who was held in Iran for a year and a half on trumped-up charges and released in a prisoner exchange in 2016.
Prepare to grill Silver in June ahead of the NBA Finals at a press conference, one of the few the Commissioner has to offer on the season.
“I wanted to put it on right away,” Rezaian said of Silver. “As a company, what do you do for this employee of yours?”
But before he had a chance, Silver beat him up, saying the NBA and the NBA were working with the US government and outside experts to try to expedite Greiner’s release. Rezaian said he thought Silver’s comments were strong and that talking about Grenier before asking him was smart.
“I thought it was great that the commissioner would use that moment that is arguably his biggest platform of the year, or one of them, to bring attention to the issue,” Rezaian said. If he could have done it, three and a half months after her arrest, he could have done it earlier.
“But I know they were advised not to do it earlier. I don’t blame anyone for that. There is no official guideline to deal with what to do when your family member or employee is taken hostage by a hostile country.”
Greiner, 31, has been in custody since February 17 after Russian customs officials said they found cannabis oil in a vape cartridge in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Her trial began on July 1, and she pleaded guilty on July 7. She said she had no intention of breaking the law because she traveled to play for a Russian women’s basketball team during the off-season of her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury.
Its next session is scheduled for Tuesday. If she is formally convicted, which experts have said is likely even before she pleads guilty, Greiner could face up to 10 years in a criminal colony. The US State Department said it would work to negotiate her release regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Her public support remained strong, despite her admission of guilt.
“I get asked this question all the time — ‘Was the NBA helpful?’” Engelbert said. “Very useful. We are involved in a brand. We have the NBA after our name. The NBA team owners reached out to me in person: “What can we do to help Britney?”
Engelbert said an NBA owner had linked her to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a unit of the State Department that deals with the cases of Americans who were considered unjustly held, even before Greiner was given the appointment.
Negotiations to secure the release of prisoners abroad often take place quietly. It’s not clear what role the NBA played in lobbying government officials or helping the Grenier family, but Engelbert said Silver was personally involved in making phone calls to government officials on behalf of Grenier.
By the time the State Department announced it had determined Greiner had been unjustly detained, the WNBA season was about to begin, but only eight NBA teams were still competing in the playoffs.
“It takes a while to get to the realization that the person you are trying to influence is the president of the United States,” Rezaian said. “Because they’re the only ones in a position to make the kinds of compromises and decisions to make compromises that would set someone free.”
He later added, “People go home when the president’s non-repatriation becomes politically costly.”
WNBA teams have honored Griner in a variety of ways, including fundraisers, court badges, and jerseys, and her family will continue to receive their full paycheck from Mercury this season. Some NBA players talked about her or wore clothes that drew attention to her detention. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns, who owns Mercury, have added badges to their stadium and posted about Griner on their social media accounts, but few NBA teams have made many vocal or public displays of support.
Experts are divided on the impact of public pressure. Some believe that this aggravates Greiner’s situation by giving the Russian government more leverage in the negotiations. A Russian official said publicity about her case was creating “interference” in making a deal.
NBA team owners were not part of the public campaign. At a press conference during the summer league in Las Vegas this month, Silver said that putting Greiner was not on the agenda during the league’s board of governors meeting, but that the owners spoke to him about it.
Then The Times contacted at least one owner from each team. Eleven representatives on behalf of the owners refused, including one who did not pass the application. A spokesperson said the team owner was on vacation and 16 teams had not responded. Two of the owners responded directly.
“I can say that I am very confident that the NBA and WNBA offices are doing everything they can,” Jenny Boss, the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, said in a text message.
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, declined to be interviewed, but said via email, “Hope you come out soon.”
Five NBA teams—in Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington, DC—own WNBA teams. The owners of these teams declined to comment, but every WNBA team publicly supported Griner.
Engelbert said the National Basketball Association did not ask team owners to avoid talking about Grenier. She is part of the NBA’s senior leadership team and reports to Silver.
“The suggestion was to support the administration and the State Department in the work they are doing in this complex situation to bring Britney home,” Engelbert said.
The players showed their support. During the NBA Players Association meeting in May, Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star who spent last season with the Lakers, said players should use the Finals to highlight Grenier.
On June 2, the day of the Silver NBA Finals press conference, Anthony posted a video on Twitter Of himself discusses Greiner. He has 9.2 million followers.
“I wanted to use my voice to rally the basketball community,” Anthony said in a statement to The Times.
In the NBA Finals practice two days after Anthony posted his video, nearly every member of the Boston Celtics wore a black T-shirt with orange lettering that read “We are guards.” Grant Williams, the Celtics striker and vice president of the players’ union, shipped out shirts overnight for his teammates.
Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, have spoken publicly about Grenier.
Tamika Tremaglio, executive director of the NBA Players Association, said she has been in touch with Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, since news broke about Griner’s arrest about how to help NBA players.
When the NBA leaders met in Las Vegas this month, they asked for an update. Jackson, who was at the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, recorded a video that was shown to NBA players.
“You could hear the pin stapling,” Tremaglio said. “They were very reflective in terms of listening and listening and understanding what was happening. It is something that we as a union support as well as women. It is something we were very concerned about as well.”
Rezaian said public offers of support are important.
During his 544-day detention in Iran, some of his most optimistic moments came when he heard people talking about him, whether it was someone from the Washington Post or President Barack Obama.
“This kind of thing fills you with a sense of being alive and also of strength,” Rezaian said. “Walls may be all around you, and you can’t break them down, but you’re still there. You still count. And people are doing what they can for you.”