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Supporters of Brittney Griner continue to call for Russia to release her

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

WNBA star Brittney Griner went on trial in Russia today, arriving in handcuffs, months after her arrest at a Moscow airport two days before Russia invaded Ukraine. Prosecutors today alleged that she was carrying vape cartridges containing hash oil. The U.S. Embassy official said Griner in court seemed to be doing well as can be expected and that she wants people to know that she's keeping up the faith. Terri Jackson is executive director of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, the union for the WNBA players. She told me Brittney Griner is a superstar in Russia as well as the U.S.

TERRI JACKSON: They know who they have. They know that they have an American, a highly decorated American as an Olympian, as a WNBA player. She's a hero in their country. I mean, they love women's basketball. They take their championships very seriously. And let's be clear - she's given them more than a few.

MARTINEZ: When Griner was first taken into custody, Jackson says, the Players Association was hoping she'd be released well in advance of this month's WNBA All-Star Game. But it's been 4 1/2 months. The All-Star Game is a week from Sunday.

JACKSON: We are 130-plus days in. And quite honestly, A, I don't even know why I'm counting days. It makes me angry and frustrated. Some days, I'm confused waking up as to what, quote-unquote, "day" it is today, you know, for BG. And I didn't even want to get caught up in that in the beginning. But I'll tell you and your listeners, you know, we call our members the 144. Twelve teams, twelve roster spots on a team, roughly, so we call them the 144. And we've been saying, lately, we're not the 144 without BG. I mean, literally, just emotionally, we're not the same without her. And ironically, painfully, the WNBA All-Star Game is on Day 143. That is amazing to me, amazing to me. Again, I don't want to get caught up...

MARTINEZ: Right.

JACKSON: ...In counting days and get caught up in the so-called symbolism of that. But I can't ignore that. We are not the 144 without her.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned how Brittney Griner is a hero in Russia, that she's loved there because she wins. She's a champion in Russia. But the fact that she has to play in Russia, in addition to playing in the WNBA, what does that say about how America sees professional female athletes in leagues?

JACKSON: Yeah. As painful as all of this is, you know, it's going to force us. It's going to force us to have a real conversation about pay equity - or inequity, for that matter. We have a phrase in the WNBPA. It's bet on women. And it's about truly what the words say, betting on them, investing in them, supporting them. Whether they're in Russia or Turkey or Spain, France, WNBA players are global ambassadors of the sport. They're playing year-round to ensure that they can make enough money.

MARTINEZ: Terri, if one day relations between the U.S. and Russia cool off, could you see any members of the WNBA ever playing professionally in Russia again?

JACKSON: I don't know. I don't know. I guess I want to see what cooling off looks like. But I think this is hard. This is difficult. This is one that we're not going to soon forget, nor should we.

MARTINEZ: The fact that it's taken this long, though, do you think the U.S. has failed Brittney Griner?

JACKSON: Not yet. I'm not giving it that. I'm hopeful she's back very soon, and you and I can just, you know, follow up on this conversation by then. But...

MARTINEZ: I mean, she could face up to a 10-year sentence at a penal colony if she's convicted.

JACKSON: Well, you know what - but you know what? That's Russia's process, right? Her team on the ground in Russia will go through the methodical steps of that process. But we know at the end of the day that this government is going to do whatever it takes to get BG home. What we want is to know that she is the high - a high priority, the highest priority, quite honestly. She's one of ours, so we want to know that she's the highest priority of the Biden administration. You know what else we want? We want President Biden, our elected official, to have a meeting - a sit-down, a face-to-face - with Cherelle Griner, BG's wife, because you know what? She deserves that. She deserves that.

MARTINEZ: That has not happened yet?

JACKSON: That has not happened. And, you know, this is Day 130-plus. Like, we want her home. We want her home.

MARTINEZ: That was Terri Jackson, executive director for the Women's National Basketball Players Association. We reached out to the White House, where officials say they are working aggressively for Griner's release and are keeping in touch with members of her family. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.