After being incarcerated for nearly a year in a foreign tyranny, a basketball star discovered a renewed appreciation for her homeland.
Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-9 center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, reversed a personal policy when she stood for the national anthem before her first games since her release in December. Previously, the 6-foot-9 center had either knelt or remained in her team’s locker room during the anthem to protest “racism.”
Griner, a former All-American at Baylor who led the Bears to the 2012 NCAA championship, made the WNBA’s post-season first or second all-star team six times and helped the Mercury win the 2014 WNBA title. Griner also earned Olympic gold medals for the United States in 2016 and 2020. She is one of only 11 female players to win NCAA, WNBA, Olympic and EuroLeague championships.
“With what I went through, everything just means a little more to me now,” Griner said May 19 after playing in the Mercury’s regular-season opener. “I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to. So just being able to hear my national anthem and see my flag, I definitely want to stand now.”
Backstory, Part I
In 2020, however, Griner held a far different opinion. That year, with violent protests raging nationwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in police custody, Griner stated the WNBA must not play the anthem before games.
“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,” she said at the time. “I think we should take that much of a stand. I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”
Other WNBA players shared her stance. When that season began, entire teams stayed inside their locker rooms during the anthem. But Griner added she would continue protesting regardless of what others did.
“I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” she said. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long. I’ll not be out there. I feel like more are going to probably do the same thing. I can only speak for myself.”
Griner eventually modified her protest by kneeling, as did former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. She only stood when she received her gold medal with the rest of her teammates at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which the COVID-19 pandemic postponed for a year.
“At the Olympics, I understand,” she said. “You’re playing for your country at that point.”
Backstory, Part II
But in February 2022, Russian police arrested Griner in Moscow when customs officials found less than one gram of cannabis oil in her vaping cartridges. Griner went to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s off-season.
Most WNBA players compete overseas to supplement earnings that pale compared to WNBA incomes. UMMC Ekaterinburg pays some of the highest salaries, with Griner having earned more than $1 million per season.
At her trial, Griner testified that a doctor prescribed medical marijuana so she could treat pain. But medical marijuana is illegal in Russia.
That May, the State Department designated Griner as “wrongly detained.” Griner pleaded guilty July 7 to possession but said she had no intent to break any law or use cannabis oil in Russia. On Aug. 4, the court sentenced her to nine years imprisonment, one year less than the maximum, and fined her 1 million rubles (or $16,301). The standard sentence in Russia for anyone caught with less than two grams of cannabis oil is 15 days.
Griner spent her sentence in a women’s prison roughly 310 miles southeast of Moscow while the United States and Russia negotiated her release. An article in The Guardian described the conditions she faced:
Russian penal colonies are known for their harsh treatment of inmates, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to proper healthcare. Conditions in penal colonies are much harsher than in detention centers. Activists say abuse and torture are frequent in Russia’s vast network of prisons, a successor to the notorious Gulag system of the Stalin era.
Olga Zeveleva, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki, called prisons in the Russian republic of Mordovia, where Griner was held, “notoriously terrible, even by Russian standards,” she said.
“The prisons there are known for the harsh regimes and human rights violations,” Zeveleva said. “It is a place any prisoner wants to avoid.”
On Dec. 8, Russia exchanged Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
So when she played her first WNBA game in 19 months on May 12 in a pre-season exhibition in Phoenix, Griner stood for the anthem.
“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” she said afterward. “It’s like when you go for the Olympics, you’re sitting there, about to get gold put on your neck, the flags are going up and the anthem is playing, it just hits different. Being here today, it means a lot.”
Turning Adversity Into Activism
Griner’s incarceration motivated her to add another outlet for her activism. She now works with Bring Our Families Home, which supports the 54 Americans whom the State Department considers to be “wrongfully detained.” Griner also used her Instagram account to generate support for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovitch and Paul Whelan, a security expert. Both are detained in Russia.
Though Griner changed her mind about standing for the anthem, she defends those who disagree with her, especially for the reasons she offered three years ago.
“I totally support them, 100 percent,” she said. “You know, we’re fighting a good cause. One good thing about this country is that you have the right to protest, to be able to speak out, to question, to challenge. Sometimes, you get labeled as a non-American. Actually, I think it makes you more American.”
That equitable attitude expresses the kind of tolerance Griner’s ideological colleagues support only with lip service.
Joseph D’Hippolito has written commentaries for such outlets as the Jerusalem Post, the American Thinker and Front Page Magazine. He works as a free-lance writer.
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