Cherelle Griner: Brittney Is ‘Not OK,’ Fears She’ll Be Moved to a Russian Labor Camp

“She’s saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more. I feel like my life doesn’t matter,'" Cherelle told Gayle King on Thursday.

Cherelle Griner: Brittney Is ‘Not OK,’ Fears She’ll Be Moved to a Russian Labor Camp
Photo:Getty (Getty Images)

Eight months have passed since Cherelle Griner last saw her wife, the WNBA All-Star and Olympic medalist Brittney Griner. In February, Brittney was taken into Russian custody after airport officials discovered trace amounts of cannabis in her luggage—a move widely regarded as Russia’s effort to put a prominent Black American athlete to use as a political pawn in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. By August, she’d been sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on exaggerated drug smuggling charges. In the period since Brittney was first arrested by authorities in Moscow, Cherelle has spoken to Brittney on the phone just twice.

In her first interview since Brittney’s sentencing, Cherelle told CBS’s Gayle King Thursday morning that that first August phone call with her “BG”—as she’s known to those who know and love her—six months after she was first detained, was “delightful.” “She’s OK,” Cherelle remembered thinking at the sound of her wife’s voice. “We can survive this.”

The second phone call? Cherelle called it “the most disturbing phone call” she’s ever experienced. The minute she hung up the phone, she said she began crying and didn’t leave her bed for days. Cherelle has known BG for 11 years and had never heard her wife—known as a joyful and lively spirit throughout the WNBA—sound this low.

“You could hear that she was not OK…you could hear that she was at the max [suffering] that day, and there was nothing I could do,” Cherelle told King. “At that point, I didn’t know if she had anything left in her tank to continue to wake up every day and be in a place where she has no one.”

Griner is currently set to appeal her nine-year sentence on October 25 and will remain in a Russian prison until then. In the meantime, the Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap, offering to send back convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for both Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan. Though there haven’t been any public updates on whether Russia is even considering the offer, Cherelle says she’s hoping for an exchange before the appeal hearing in two weeks. If BG isn’t released before then, Cherelle told King she fears her wife will be moved to a labor camp to carry out her sentence. While she knows her wife isn’t currently being harmed physically, she fears Brittney is in grave danger, mentally.

Cherelle said that when she saw photos of Brittney handcuffed, sullen, and gaunt as she passed through Russian courthouses prior to her sentencing, she could tell “she’s not herself.” She knows BG is being as strong as she possibly can be while locked up in a Russian prison and isolated from her friends and family, but she also cannot fathom that even at her “absolute weakest moment in life,” Brittney is still pushing standing. Somehow, she’s still alive.

Despite the undying activism of Cherelle, the WNBA, reporters who cover it, and players like Breanna Stewart who still post about BG nearly every day, the public demands for Griner’s release have grown much quieter, and Brittney has caught wind of that. When a reporter asked Brittney’s former college basketball coach, Louisiana State University’s Kim Mulkey, why we haven’t heard her speak out about Griner’s detention, she stated coldly, “You won’t.”

While it’s clear that women athletes—who have always taken up the mantle of operating as activists both for themselves and for their sport—are dedicated to keeping BG’s name in headlines, in social media chatter, and in the minds of anyone who remotely cares about women in this country, Mulkey’s response is a stark reminder that millions of people in this country do not care about women athletes, Black women, or queer women.

“She’s very afraid about being left and forgotten in Russia or just completely used to the point of her detriment,” Cherelle said. “She’s saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more. I feel like my life doesn’t matter. Y’all don’t see me. Y’all don’t see the need to get me back home.’”

Brittney’s 32nd birthday is coming up on October 18, and Cherelle is crossing her fingers that her wife will be released from Russian prison before then so they can celebrate together in their home on American soil.

Cherelle is far from done fighting, and she wants her wife to know: “Your life matters to me, and I want to get you back home.”

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