Brittney Griner calls to 'bring home every American detained overseas' at NAACP Image Awards

WNBA player Brittney Griner (right) was detained in Russia for 10 months. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
WNBA player Brittney Griner (right) was detained in Russia for 10 months. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner once again called for the return of all Americans detained overseas. This time, she did it while being honored by Queen Latifah at the NAACP Image Awards on Saturday night alongside her wife, Cherelle Griner.

"I want to thank everyone," Griner said, moments after being welcomed onstage to a standing ovation from the audience. "And let's fight to bring home every American detained overseas."

A year ago this month, Griner was detained in Russia after customs officials allegedly found .702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. She was held for the next 10 months, sentenced to nine years of imprisonment and was sent to a Russian penal colony in November before the United States government negotiated for her release on Dec. 8. In exchange for her release, the U.S. government reportedly sent convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia. Retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russia since 2018, was not part of the deal.

Since her return, Griner has advocated for the release of Whelan as well as others wrongfully detained. The Mercury joined Griner's fight and sent letters to Whelan earlier this month in a show of support.

"We will do the campaigns to bring these detainees home, to have these families reunited," Mercury president Vince Kozar told Insider's Meredith Cash. "We will do the same work that we would've done on BG's behalf if she were still gone. We will just now do it with her in support of all of those other families who are enduring the same thing. So there's a lot more to come there."

Griner took a pay cut after Mercury paid her during detainment

Questions about Griner's WNBA future were quickly answered when she vowed to return to the Mercury a week after she returned from her detainment.

After months of working out at the team facility, Griner officially signed a one-year, $165,000 deal to remain in Phoenix, which was notably less than what she made on her previous contract with the Mercury. But, per Insider, Griner decided to take less money because of what the franchise did for her during her detainment.

Griner's decision helped the Mercury re-sign Taurasi for her 19th season. Taurasi was one of the people who welcomed Griner back to the U.S. when she landed in Texas.

"Sources familiar with the contract negotiations told Insider that Griner's financial sacrifice was one of unselfishness rather than necessity," Cash wrote in the Insider. "It was meant as an act of good will toward the franchise — which paid her salary in full through the season she missed while detained in Russia — and as a show of respect to [Diana] Taurasi, who played the vast majority of her illustrious WNBA career without the opportunity to make more than five figures.

Griner's official WNBA return isn't set in stone, but the Mercury open their season on the road against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 19 with Phoenix's home opener coming two days later. Griner's safety is another concern, though, given her increased domestic and global notoriety.

The biggest issue to ensure Griner's safety and security is travel. The WNBA currently does not allow chartered flights during the regular season — which has been a major point of contention for players over the past several years. There has been speculation Griner would require private flights because of security concerns, but Insider reported no transportation decisions have been made.

"We are all acutely aware of some of the things that have been said about her. We were acutely aware of the way that her return has been used to try and further polarize people," Kozar said. "We understand that certain [people] have tried to continue to use this to polarize people ... and we understand that people have done that through the lens of BG's identity, which is as a woman, it's as a Black woman, and it's as a gay, Black woman.

"None of that is lost on us, and we understand that words oftentimes can be a precursor to violence. And so we take all of that incredibly seriously. We understand, and all of the people around her understand, that it is our joint responsibility to ensure that we are approaching this with the due gravity that it requires."