The Right’s Brittney Griner Obsession

Black athletes who bridge sports and social justice have always found themselves targeted by pundits for voicing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

An illustration that includes a large red square beside a photo of Brittney Griner in detainment
The Washington Post / Getty; The Atlantic

Brittney Griner is still detained in Russia. The WNBA star has now been imprisoned for 205 long days.

In August, Griner was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling for traveling with less than a gram of cannabis oil, and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. During her trial, lawyers argued that she had a medical note for the cannabis oil, but it did no good. Ironically, this is the same country that found a loophole in the legal system to allow fans attending the 2018 FIFA World Cup to bring cannabis and—check this—even cocaine and heroin into the country, if they provided the proper paperwork.

But Griner’s problems are not just in Russia. I have been shocked by Americans’ reactions to Griner’s imprisonment. It is not just that so many Americans aren’t outraged enough. It’s that so many—especially in the right-wing media—are actually celebrating her detainment. They are trying to turn Griner into an enemy and a criminal, in a way that reveals a long-standing animosity toward those who are Black and athletic and who use their platform to speak out against injustice in America.

“On the bright side, B Griner won’t have to endure our National Anthem for 9 whole years! What a win for her!” the Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren tweeted to her 2 million followers after Griner’s sentence was announced. It was a reference to Griner’s refusal to walk onto the court when the anthem was played—a protest against the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers in 2020. Instead of reflecting on what her fellow American citizen would have to endure in a Russian penal colony for charges Lahren herself described as “excessive, overblown, and overkill,” Lahren took the opportunity to taunt and shame Griner for exercising her First Amendment rights.

Griner has a history of using her platform to speak on issues affecting people of color. After she told Andscape that “nothing is being done” about Taylor’s death, she began wearing Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey as a tribute. After George Floyd was killed by a police officer two months after Taylor’s death, Griner again refused to take the court while the anthem played.

“We should not play the national anthem during our season,” she told a reporter at The Arizona Republic. “I think we should take that much of a stand. I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country.” She explained that her father had fought in Vietnam and served as a law-enforcement officer for 30 years. “I wanted to be a cop before basketball,” she said. “I do have pride for my country.”

But this wasn’t enough for some people. “Perhaps Griner’s time in Russian jail will inspire a newfound gratitude for our government, our national anthem, and our Anglo-American heritage, which provide her the freedoms she now no longer enjoys,” Micah Veillon, then an editorial intern, wrote for The American Conservative.

Veillon used the word our to mark Griner as an outsider who needs to learn how to be more moral, patriotic—and white. This is about an athlete who has represented her country on the Olympic stage not once but twice, in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, bringing home two gold medals.

Former President Donald Trump also got in on the Griner-bashing. In an appearance on The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show, he called her a “potentially spoiled person … loaded up with drugs.” He said that it would not be worth it for the State Department to try to release a Russian prisoner in exchange for her freedom.

This hostility is not a new phenomenon. Black athletes who bridge sports and social justice have always found themselves targeted by right-wing politicians and pundits for voicing dissatisfaction with the status quo. I am reminded of the Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s 2018 diatribe against LeBron James for publicly criticizing Trump. Ingraham said that James should keep politics out of sports and “shut up and dribble.”

Because Griner didn’t shut up and dribble, she faces the same backlash. Lahren, Veillon, and others can’t outright attack Griner for her race, so they instead cast her as unpatriotic.

To them, Griner is ungrateful and undeserving of freedom and compassion; she isn’t American enough to be saved. This is the politics of dehumanization. A headline in The American Conservative says it all: “Is Brittney Griner Worth It?”

Of course she’s worth it. Griner is a human being who deserves to be in the loving arms of her wife and to return to what she loves: to that sheer gracefulness that turns a court and a ball into a wonder in this world. But Griner does not have to be magical or spectacular to be treated with respect. She can criticize her country and belong back on American soil.