In January, Brittney Griner was well-known mainly in basketball circles as a WNBA superstar. By mid-February, she was about to become a cause célèbre and a symbol of people held unjustly around the world.
On Feb. 17, the 33-year-old Griner was detained at an airport in Moscow in possession of vaping cartridges that contained hashish oil. She pleaded guilty in July, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison in August and was released this month in a prisoner swap. She spent Christmas at home in Texas with her wife, Cherelle.
“It feels so good to be home! The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn,” Griner wrote on Instagram on Dec. 16. “I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”
For enduring her ordeal amid an international crisis and for bringing visibility to LGBTQ athletes (in circumstances no one should wish on another) Griner is Outsports Person of the Year.
In the 10 months between her arrest and her release, Griner became a Rorschach test that exposed racism, misogyny and homophobia among many Americans. As Will Leitch of New York magazine put it: “Griner’s arrest and detention shed light on a lot of unsavory things: Russia’s cold, calculated use of a star athlete as bargaining chip; the practice of WNBA players having to play overseas to make a living; and the willingness of many Americans (a minority but certainly more than you would have ever thought) to side against the politically active Black lesbian sports star and with, uh, Vladimir Putin.”
For example, our 2020 story “Brittney Griner says she will protest during the national anthem all season” was the third-most read story on Outsports this year, showing the intense interest in her. There were people online and in the right-wing media, upset that Griner — a black, queer woman — would dare protest police brutality by ignoring the anthem, and these same people cheered her detention in a brutal authoritarian nation whose leader just invaded a sovereign country. I doubt the reaction would have been the same had it been a cis, white male athlete who was arrested.
“If Brittney Griner did break a law in Russia, I don’t have a whole lotta sympathy for her,” tweeted Tomi Lahren to her 2 million followers, in a comment representative of the criticism of Griner. “I also don’t understand why there should be a big emphasis on getting her back to the USA when she clearly finds this country so awful.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote a terrific rebuttal to such sentiments:
Some people think that because she wouldn’t stand for her country, her country shouldn’t stand for her. That also doesn’t make sense. By expressing her freedom of speech, Griner, the daughter of a Vietnam War vet, was celebrating America, not denigrating it. And since when is American citizenship conditional on pro-American behavior?
There were also people upset that Griner was freed while another American, Paul Whelan, remains in a Russian prison. But that was not Griner’s doing and U.S. officials made it clear that the Russians were not swapping Whelan, so if the trade for arms dealer Viktor Bout was rejected, Griner would still be a prisoner.
In the aftermath of her release, Griner and her wife have repeatedly spoken up for Whelan’s release and said they would continue to do so. In a holiday message posted online, Griner urged people to write letters to Whelan:
“Your letters were also bigger than uplifting me. They showed me the power of collective hands. Together, we can do hard things. I’m living proof of that. My family’s whole and now, thanks to you, we are fortunate to get to spend the holidays together. However, there remain too many families with loved ones wrongfully detained,” she wrote.
“Those families stood alongside you and all who supported the We Are BG Campaign to bring me home and it’s our turn to support them. I hope you’ll join me in writing to Paul Whelan and continuing to advocate for other Americans to be rescued and returned to their families.”
Now that she is free, Griner — a member of the WNBA’s all-time team, and an Olympic gold medalist — will focus on resuming her basketball career in 2023, telling her fans: “I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon.”
As we look ahead to 2023, here’s hoping the only news Griner makes is on the court.
Prior Person of the Year Winners
2021: NFL player Carl Nassib
2020: NFL coach Katie Sowers
2019: Soccer player Megan Rapinoe
2018: Figure skater Adam Rippon
2017: Former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan
2016: Duathlete and triathlete Chris Mosier
2015: High school basketball player Dalton Maldonado
2014: NFL draftee Michael Sam