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WNBA players union president on where Brittney Griner's case stands

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Russia, lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner appealed her nine-year sentence for drug possession last week. The three-time all-American and Olympic gold medalist who plays with the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason was arrested by Russian authorities after she entered a Russian airport with vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. Griner has acknowledged she packed the cannabis cartridges, but she says she did so inadvertently. And her legal team said she had been prescribed medical cannabis to treat chronic pain from injuries. Griner, like many women professional basketball players, plays year-round to supplement her WNBA salary, which is substantially less than that earned by their male counterparts. But that particular drug is illegal in Russia. Officials in both the U.S. and Russia have publicly discussed prisoner swaps, though it is unclear whether or how this appeal will affect those talks.

While Griner has been held in Russia, her teammates and fellow WNBA players have been advocating for her release. We wanted to see where things stand, so we called Nneka Ogwumike. She is the president of the WNBA Players Association and plays for the Los Angeles Sparks. I started by asking her about how Brittney Griner's wife, Cherelle, and her family have been doing in the days since Griner's sentence was announced.

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: Cherelle is strong. She is very, very, very strong. And she's definitely not going out without a fight, and we're all helping her and Brittney's family get as much support as we can to be able to get a deal done to get her home.

MARTIN: When we last spoke in May, you called for more action from the Biden administration. You had indicated that you and other players were keeping quiet, hoping to see - well, basically taking direction from people with a lot of experience in this area. Now, there are ongoing talks, as far as we know, about a possible prisoner swap. Do you have any sense of how things stand? Has the Biden administration or any other diplomatic officials been communicating with the Players Association or with the league in her behalf or just keeping you informed?

OGWUMIKE: Well, we stay as informed as possible, obviously, through Brittney's family. And as we said, not - maybe not when I spoke before, but since things have evolved, you know, we believe in the administration's commitment to BG, but we have to leave, now, negotiations to the experts. We understand that there's a long history of prisoner swaps, but we have full confidence and full support that the government will do whatever it takes to get a deal done, to get Brittney and all the other Americans home.

MARTIN: Does this bring up new questions for you about what the protocol should be for playing overseas or what kind of guidance people should get before they play overseas?

OGWUMIKE: Yeah, you know, this is - I really love that you're diving into this because this is actually something that's been - that's kind of been in the back of our minds since this has kind of become a part of, you know, our professional journeys as women playing basketball. Going overseas is a thing for us. And a lot of times, when no problems arise, no one really considers, you know, the severity of things that can happen. And I think that this is honestly an ongoing conversation, both individually and collectively. It really is a quandary, and I know for sure that safety is going to be viewed differently as players consider how they make a living playing overseas and what that means for their careers in the W.

But it's really hard to say where it'll land. But I know for sure that a lot of players and families and teams and coaches are definitely looking at these opportunities differently now. But it's hard to say that they're necessarily - they're being, necessarily, closed off because of the larger conversation around inequity. And I'm sorry to say that I can't give an answer, but that's just the reality of it.

MARTIN: The WNBA playoffs are underway. Griner's team, the Phoenix Mercury, lost their first playoff game to the Las Vegas Aces. I know that you all are professionals, and you have to, you know, compartmentalize a lot of things, as professionals do, but I do wonder whether - in some ways, has this - has her being detained in Russia - has it, I don't know, cast a cloud over the season in some way? I mean, is it something that - I don't know. Do you feel like it's kind of shadowed the season, in some way, for the players, even those who aren't on her team?

OGWUMIKE: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. It's - I mean, you don't have someone that - someone isn't home. You know, you just don't have someone home. And I can only imagine what it's been like for the Phoenix Mercury. And for them to still have made it to the playoffs and to be fighting, you know, for a championship contention, to me, is quite remarkable, all while continuing to uplift her name throughout this season. Missing just a big part of that family has been hard for us, especially for the WNBPA and the Players Association and what we've been able to kind of do to help keep players informed.

And most importantly, too, I think right now, you know, as the season kind of comes to a close, we don't want her name to be quieted. And that's something that is hugely important for us because we still have to be able to remind people and unite Americans to get BG home 'cause she is our family. And it doesn't just matter because the season is not in play, you know? She is an American, and she's our family. And she's a hero, and we want to ensure that we are reminded of that every day, whether we're playing basketball or not.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for talking with us. I know it hasn't been an easy season for you either, and you've continued to play for your team while you're continuing to, you know, orchestrate and be involved in the activism on her behalf. So, this can't have been an easy season for you either. So, you know, thank you for talking with us.

OGWUMIKE: Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me the time.

MARTIN: That was Nneka Ogwumike - she's a WNBA player and president of the Players Association - updating us on WNBA star Brittney Griner, who is still being detained in Russia, the United States says, unlawfully. Nneka Ogwumike, thank you so much for joining us once again.

OGWUMIKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.