LeBron James asked this week how Brittney Griner can feel like America has her back. It’s a fair question to raise, considering the showboating that many are doing at her expense.
That’s right: sizable numbers of Americans, some of whom proudly call themselves “patriots,” are dunking on Griner while she rots in a Russian prison cell.
It is another sad illustration of the toxic discourse that comes to dominate discussions about nearly every issue, including an Olympic gold medalist who’s being held as a political prisoner.
Griner was in court Thursday as two members of her Russian basketball club, a teammate and the general manager, vouched for her character. Last week, Griner pleaded guilty to criminal drug charges related to allegations she attempted to move a vape pen with marijuana through the Moscow Airport. She could face up to 10 years in prison.
Russian prosecutors say there was less than one gram of hashish oil packed with Griner’s smoking cartridges. She asserts she never intended to break the law.
The reason why Griner was even playing basketball in Russia speaks to the gross inequities in American sports. Star WNBA players often play overseas, because they aren’t fairly compensated for their talents in the U.S.
For example: Griner makes about $230,000 annually playing for the Phoenix Mercury. James earns roughly $520,000 per game.
While WNBA players and officials and LGBTQ athletes are magnifying their public support for Griner — Megan Rapinoe wore a suit to honor Griner when she was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — this story hasn’t dominated the news cycle.
There’s little doubt that Tom Brady or Steph Curry’s imprisonment would elicit much stronger reaction.
Gender inequality explains some of the muted response to Griner’s plight. But it doesn’t explain everything, especially the vitriol.
Griner’s identity as a strong out Black gay woman makes her a target in Russia, and it does in some dark corners here, too.
Ever since Griner’s guilty plea, numerous right-wing trolls have boasted about their lack of sympathy for her.
“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. “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.”
Lahren’s reactionary ramblings illustrate the grotesque idea that Griner is receiving her comeuppance. In recent years, Griner has stopped taking the floor for the national anthem, and called on the WNBA to stop playing the song.
Like many athletes who stopped standing for the “Star-Bangled Banner” before games, Griner protested to take a stand against racism and other national atrocities.
It was a quintessentially American act from a quintessential American. Griner publicly came out as gay before her WNBA career even started, when she was just 22 years old.
She’s one of the rare sports greats who’s played their entire pro career as an out LGBTQ person.
In the process, Griner has become one of the most decorated female basketball players ever. She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion, national champion and eight-time All-Star.
Griner is unapologetically herself, and one of the best of all-time. She represents the best of America, regardless of political persuasion.
But the disdain that some people hold for outspoken Black and Brown and LGBTQ people trumps everything else.
It’s so ugly.
Brittney Griner hated America until she needed help.— Sara (@skb_sara) July 11, 2022
I hate to say it, but Brittney Griner committed a crime and she never loved America to begin with.— Nick Adams (@NickAdamsinUSA) July 13, 2022
Brittney Griner actively refused to be present during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem before games, and even demanded the Anthem and flag ceremony be avoided in all games.— Errol Webber (@ErrolWebber) July 7, 2022
I wonder what it feels like now with her begging the Red, White and Blue to come to her rescue? pic.twitter.com/Q9WHSU2SlB
The US government is trying to get Brittney Griner released and sent home, after she has pled guilty to carrying THC.— Spike Cohen (@RealSpikeCohen) July 9, 2022
Perhaps the US government should set an example by releasing and sending home all the people they've convicted for carrying THC.
It’s true that James became hyperbolic when discussing Griner’s case on the latest episode of his YouTube show, “The Shop.” At one point, James mused whether Griner would even want to return to the U.S.
That’s ridiculous: Griner lives as an out and proud gay woman here. She has a wonderful wife, and is free to speak her mind.
She wouldn’t be able to live as openly in many other places, and especially not in Russia.
James quickly dribbled back those exaggerated comments, but they highlight a dismal truth: there are Americans who don’t want Griner back.
And that’s disturbing.