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    Brittney Griner’s Supporters Hold Steady After Guilty Plea

    Griner, the W.N.B.A. star, pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russia on Thursday. But her supporters are still determined to fight to bring her home.For the first time in a while, Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, felt hopeful about Brittney Griner.Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, had spoken on the phone with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday morning. That evening, Jackson attended a rally to support Brittney Griner at the Footprint Center arena in Phoenix. It had been hosted by the Phoenix Mercury and Representative Greg Stanton, Democrat of Arizona, with hundreds of Griner’s supporters on hand.“It was emotional, it was a celebration, it was a renewed hope and renewed spirit,” Jackson said. “And yet, we are very mindful that we are not near the end.”If the American basketball star is convicted, she could face up to 10 years in a Russian penal colony.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated PressJackson spoke Thursday afternoon, hours after Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a court near Moscow. Griner, the star Mercury center, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, accused of having hashish oil in her luggage at a Russian airport. Her trial on the drug charges began on July 1. But despite her guilty plea on Thursday, the support she has received from her representatives, friends, family, teammates and others has not waned.“I think it made us more resolved to demonstrate our support for her and to recognize that Russia’s process is its own,” Jackson said. “It’s nothing like ours. And yet try to stay hopeful that there’s some forward progress to getting her home.”Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, called Griner a “model of courage” in a statement on Twitter on Thursday.“BG’s service as an Olympian and global sport ambassador, caring for those most in need, has always distinguished her; but BG is also a human being whose family misses her,” Kagawa Colas said. “She deserves our compassion, understanding, love and support.”Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, who has been working to secure Griner’s release, urged caution in reacting to her guilty plea, calling her prosecution a “sham trial” on Twitter.“Remember that we should not draw any serious conclusions from this and that she was wrongfully detained in the first place,” Allred said.The rally for Brittney Griner on Wednesday. Many fans have been vocal in their support since Griner was detained in February.Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesW.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released a statement Thursday afternoon.“Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained in Russia, and nothing that happened today changes that 140 days later,” Engelbert said. She added: “She has the wholehearted and unconditional support of the entire W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. family, who eagerly await her safe return.”The U.S. State Department first announced that Griner had been classified as “wrongfully detained” in May and said it would look to negotiate her release regardless of the result of her trial.On Thursday, a Russian diplomat suggested to reporters in Moscow that the public clamor about Griner’s release — which he attributed to the Biden administration — was detrimental to getting a deal done.Griner’s supporters, though, have long believed that calling public attention to her situation was necessary to get the attention of the Biden administration. After the State Department classified Griner as wrongfully detained, her closest supporters began to feel comfortable drawing attention to her detention. Many fans have been vocal since February.Starting in early May, Kagawa Colas joined with Griner’s family, the W.N.B.A. and its players’ union and the Mercury to start an advocacy campaign with the hashtag #WeAreBG. Several W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. players began speaking out about Griner’s situation. The N.B.A.’s Boston Celtics wore T-shirts that said #WeAreBG during one N.B.A. finals practice.In June, Kagawa Colas coordinated with dozens of organizations that represent people of color, women and members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community to send a letter to Biden and Harris urging them to make a deal to bring Griner home.On Thursday, the W.N.B.A. players’ union released a statement that positioned the organization alongside those groups.“The administration needs to know that this powerful collective is behind them and supports whatever needs to be done to get B.G., Paul Whelan and other detained U.S. nationals home right away,” the statement read.Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018. He was convicted of espionage in a Russian court in 2020.A mural showing Brittney Griner (42) at the Footprint Center arena in Phoenix. W.N.B.A. teams have worn T-shirts with the No. 42 during the season to show their support.Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThis weekend, the W.N.B.A. will host its All-Star Game and other competitions in Chicago. They are an annual celebration of the league’s best players, and Griner has been selected as an All-Star seven times. The league named her as an honorary starter for the All-Star Game on Sunday.“Sends a very, very strong message from the league recognizing that we are missing not just one of the game’s biggest, brightest stars but an individual who is just very important to us outside of this game,” Jackson said.Before the game, the Rev. Al Sharpton announced he would hold a news conference on Friday in Chicago with Cherelle Griner, Jackson and Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who is the president of the players’ union.“Brittney has admitted to making a mistake, and I hope the Russian authorities recognize that humbling act and respond with compassion,” Sharpton said in a statement. “She is in the fight of her life right now, which is why we’ll be in Chicago to show our support for Brittney and for the administration and their efforts to bring her home as soon as possible. We must all continue to pray she finds strength through this challenging time.”The W.N.B.A. players’ union sometimes calls its membership The 144 — a reference to the 12 players on each of the 12 teams in the league. Jackson noted that the All-Star Game would take place on the 143rd day of Griner’s detention.“It reminds us all — at least those of us who have engaged in this frustrating process of counting the days — it reminds us that we are not The 144 without Brittney Griner,” Jackson said. She added: “The symbolism of that is not lost on any one of us.” More

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    Brittney Griner’s Supporters Have a New Strategy to Free Her: Make Noise

    Those close to Griner pursued a strategy of silence after her detention in Russia in February, hoping to avoid politicizing her case. Now they are amping up public pressure, with some of it aimed at President Biden.Her face is on hoodies. Her name is in hashtags. Her “B.G.” and number are on fans’ jerseys and W.N.B.A. courts.As the Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner waits in Russia, detained since Feb. 17 on drug charges, symbols of support for her are all around. They come from people who don’t know her at all and people who know and love her — from teammates, sympathizers and former coaches.Dawn Staley, who coached Griner and her U.S. teammates to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics last year, said she thinks about her every day.“I know Brittney, I’ve been around her, know her heart. I know what she’s about,” Staley said. “And if she’s being wrongfully detained or not, I would be advocating for her release because nobody should be in a foreign country locked up abroad.”Staley has posted messages on Twitter about Griner every day since early May. “Can you please free our friend,” she wrote on Tuesday, tagging the official account for the White House. She added, “All of her loved ones would sleep a little easier.”It has been more than three months since Griner was detained, accused of having hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. But only in the last few weeks has there been a coordinated public campaign by W.N.B.A. players and by Griner’s wife, family, friends and agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, to push for her release. That’s where the hoodies — worn by many different players — and the initials — displayed on W.N.B.A. courts — come in. The #WeAreBG hashtag seen on warm-up shirts and social media is also part of the campaign.On Saturday, the W.N.B.A. players’ union posted messaging on social media marking the 100th day of Griner’s detention.Decals with Griner’s No. 42 and initials are on each court in the W.N.B.A.Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times, via Associated PressThe delay in starting the campaign was strategic: Griner’s camp was worried that publicity could make the situation worse because of tensions between Russia and the United States, including the war in Ukraine. But the delay has also been a source of frustration for women’s basketball players known for their social justice advocacy. Their approach has changed since the State Department said on May 3 that it had determined that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.”“Griner’s reclassification as wrongfully detained by the U.S. government cued our shift to the more public activist elements of our strategy,” Kagawa Colas said, adding that she could not elaborate out of respect for the sensitivity of the situation.Supporters have quickly joined in the new approach.“We’re more public,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union. One reason, she said, was the State Department’s determination, and another was the guidance of Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.“She’s lead on this,” Jackson said. “She signaled through her team that she needed us, and that’s all we needed to hear.”Cherelle Griner appeared on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday and appealed to President Biden to intervene.“I just keep hearing that he has the power,” Cherelle Griner said. “She’s a political pawn. If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”The State Department’s announcement this month said that Biden’s special envoy for hostage affairs would lead an interagency team to secure Griner’s release. But since then, Griner’s detention has been extended until June 18, and the Biden administration has said little about its maneuvering. Cherelle Griner said during the television interview that her only communication with her wife had been through occasional letters. She said she had been told that her wife’s release was a top priority, but she expressed skepticism.Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, has been speaking publicly about Brittney Griner’s detention and working with her representatives. He said Griner, who is from Houston, has had access to her attorney in Russia but has not been able to speak with her family. That violated international norms, he said.“The Russians need to be aware that we know what they’re doing, we know why they’re doing it and there will be consequences if anything should happen to her,” Allred said.Griner’s family and friends have sought to pressure Russia and Biden while also pleading for more support and news coverage in the United States.“There’s not enough conversations being had about Brittney and her release and just any talks of it,” said Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina. “And I know there’s a process. I get that.”She added later: “There’s so many people that really know Brittney that aren’t doing anything, that aren’t sympathizing with the situation. I just want people to feel like it’s their loved one. And when you feel like it’s your loved one you would do anything to help. Everybody’s got to live their life, I get that, but come on. Empathize.”Fans have waged their own public campaign for Griner, even when those closest to her used a strategy of silence.Darryl Webb/Associated PressSeveral players in the W.N.B.A., and a few in the N.B.A., have begun publicly advocating Griner’s release; in the first two and a half months after Griner’s detention most had said only that they loved and missed her.Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who was named the league’s most valuable player in 2018, posts daily on Twitter about Griner. DeWanna Bonner, who plays for the Connecticut Sun and was Griner’s teammate in Phoenix from 2013 to 2019, brought up Griner during a recent news conference.“One more thing,” she said. “Free B.G. We are B.G. We love B.G. Free her.”In mid-May, the W.N.B.A. players’ union became an official partner on a petition addressed to the White House, which urged Biden to do “whatever is necessary” to bring Griner home safely. The petition was started in March by Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist who has written for several media outlets, including The New York Times, about the W.N.B.A. Griner’s representatives at Wasserman promoted the petition to news outlets.In an interview with ESPN on May 17, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver was asked what role the league should play in Griner’s situation. The N.B.A. owns 42.1 percent of the W.N.B.A.What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in RussiaCard 1 of 5What happened? More

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    The WNBA’s $20 Million Debate Over Charter Flights

    Secret charter flights cost the Liberty a big fine, but players say they deserve them — and need them to be healthy. The league says they’re too expensive for now.The W.N.B.A. said charter flights were too expensive. The players said they did not have to be. The W.N.B.A. commissioner said she wanted them more than anyone. The players said that when they asked for them just two years ago, it felt like the answer was “a hard no.”Now, charter flights for players seem to be closer to a maybe. But that movement has come at a cost — a $500,000 fine for the Liberty, and a bruising of the league’s public image as fans, players and those attuned to drama question whether the W.N.B.A. is doing right by its players.And the cost for the flights? W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league had estimated that it would cost more than $20 million for all 12 teams to fly by charter instead of commercial airlines for a full season, not accounting for the recent surge in fuel costs and variables such as routes. She has maintained that the league does not have enough revenue to cover the costs. Teams typically play more than 30 games, with half on the road.The players’ union said that it did not have a cost estimate, but that a change in travel accommodations was long overdue.“The league is young, but it’s old enough,” said Terri Jackson, the union’s executive director. “We can figure this out.”An article in Sports Illustrated on Tuesday revealed that the W.N.B.A. had fined the Liberty $500,000 in the fall for secretly using charter flights to travel to some games during the 2021 season. The collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union allows for premium economy seats, such as Comfort Plus from Delta, but charter flights are not allowed and their provision is considered an unfair competitive advantage. The league confirmed to The New York Times that the Liberty had been fined $500,000 for “multiple violations of league rules,” including taking eight charter flights toward the end of the regular season, sending players on a trip to Napa, Calif., and making unspecified “public comments about items that are collectively bargained.”The Liberty declined to comment. In October, Joe Tsai, who owns the Liberty with his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, tweeted about charter flights as an issue of “equity for women athletes.”The Liberty, owned by Joe Tsai, were fined $500,000 for eight charter flights and a trip to Napa, Calif., during the 2021 season.Corey Sipkin/Associated PressEngelbert said that she wanted players to have charter flights, but that until that was possible, the collective bargaining agreement had to be enforced and the fine “had to be big enough” to serve as a deterrent. She said Sports Illustrated’s report that the league had suggested a $1 million fine was “inaccurate,” but a spokesman for the magazine said it stood behind its reporting.The sentiment on social media this week has been largely against the league, including from players who are not on the Liberty.“We deserve nice things,” guard Lexie Brown, who won a championship with the Chicago Sky last season, posted on Twitter on Wednesday. A week earlier, Brown tweeted “the wnba” in response to a question about what was holding the league back.“What a joke,” Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu posted on Twitter with three crying-laughing emojis, in response to a tweet about the Sports Illustrated article.Josh Hart, who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers of the N.B.A., tweeted “This is trash and @WNBA yall got to get better.”Part of the blowback came in response to the assertion by Sports Illustrated that in September, team owners did not support an “unofficial proposal” from the Liberty to make charter flights the default. According to the article, “the Liberty said they’d found a way to get it comped for everyone in the league for three years,” but some owners were worried the players would get used to the flights and want them permanently.But the league was quoted in the article as saying that the Liberty did not make a proposal for the owners to consider, and, in an interview with The Times, Engelbert said a formal proposal “never happened.” She added that if such a proposal were to come, “it would be supported.”“This is a good thing that we have ownership groups that really care, that are investing and are having really good debates,” she said.Whether or not the team owners want charters, the players do. And, in a twist from even five or 10 years ago, they appear to have broad public support as female athletes speak up for themselves and women’s sports get more media attention. For some, the push for charters is about offering accommodations befitting professional athletes — “nice things,” as Brown said. But Jackson said it was mainly about players’ health and safety.“Their bodies are their craft,” Jackson said. They need time to rest, leg room because they are tall and access to nutritious meals to perform at a high level, she said. All of that is compromised by spending hours in airports traveling commercially, sitting in cramped seats and not having proper snacks, she said.It was worse just a few years ago, before the 2020 collective bargaining agreement went into effect with an allotment for upgraded seats. Liz Cambage, a four-time All-Star who is listed at 6-foot-8, tweeted last month that she had paid “out of my own pocket” to upgrade her seats. And yet, even now, players can find themselves stuck in coach.Jackson said teams and the league had blamed overwhelmed staff members struggling to arrange travel and airlines that won’t allow large groups to book upgraded or exit row seats. Bringing the complaints to the league has helped — “Some teams got it together,” Jackson said — but she said the next step would be to file a grievance. The union did not do so last season, but upgraded travel will be a “point of emphasis” this coming season, she said. The league said it was “made aware” of complaints last season and will be auditing teams this season “to assure full compliance.”How soon players can upgrade to charter flights — without teams incurring fines — is unclear because of the players’ and league’s conflicting views on how to pay for them, and when. Engelbert said the $20 million-plus price tag for full-season charters makes it unlikely that a sponsor will pick up the tab, though the league is open to that and the Liberty and other teams are exploring options.“I don’t want to do things that jeopardize the financial health of the league,” she said, adding, “We are trying to build revenue and financial models that support better things for the players in the long term, but this is not something that we can afford today.”Engelbert would not disclose the W.N.B.A.’s revenue or if any teams were profitable, but she said the league was valued at $475 million and at more than $1 billion with the 12 teams included. Last month, the league announced that it had raised $75 million from a group of investors, including Condoleezza Rice and Joe and Clara Wu Tsai. The league had been owned in a 50-50 split with the N.B.A., which founded the W.N.B.A. in 1996. Now the ownership split is 42.1 percent each for the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. and 15.8 percent for the new investors, who do not have voting rights, as first reported by Sports Illustrated and confirmed by The Times.W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she hoped the league would be able to have full-season charters eventually, but that was “not something that we can afford today.”Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesIn an interview with The Times last month, Engelbert said that the new money would not be used for charter flights but for marketing and upgrading the league’s digital products, such as its website and streaming service. The marketing efforts could generate additional revenue that might then enable the league to pay for flights in the future, she said.Jackson said even small changes to the flight rules now could have a big impact. When the union was negotiating travel accommodations for its contract, it didn’t start by asking for full-season charters, she said.“We didn’t go into negotiations to break the bank,” she said. “We care too much about this league. But we want to be supported. The players want to be supported and valued, not taken advantage of.”In addition to having sponsors cover some, if not all, of the cost of charters, Jackson said the union was open to discussing using charters for back-to-back games and the postseason — which Engelbert has permitted under special circumstances — and setting a maximum number of flights that teams could use per season and letting them decide when and whether to use them.“There are ways to do this,” Jackson said. “This is not an all-or-nothing.” More