Letters Helped Brittney Griner Survive. Here’s One for Her Future.
Welcome home, Brittney. At long last, welcome home.
Like so many others, I wondered if this day would ever come.
Now you are home and safe after nearly 10 months of brutal uncertainty and fear.
Home and safe after isolating imprisonment in a Russia that has cast aside international norms.
Home and safe after getting trapped in a web of geopolitics that grew thicker each day as the war in Ukraine dragged on.
What you endured over the last 10 months is nearly unfathomable. As a Black, openly gay woman, you were in particular danger as a prisoner in a country with dangerous, retrograde views on race and sexuality.
Home — and safe. What a turn of events.
And yet, less than a day after your plane touched down at a Texas military base, controversy and conversation swirl.
Some voices say the Biden administration should never have swapped a W.N.B.A. star in a one-for-one trade for Viktor Bout, a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel described by the Justice Department as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.
Others feel that you deserved no help, that you alone should have answered to Russian authorities for the mistake of having vape cartridges containing a trace of cannabis oil in your luggage, even though you’ve said you use the substance for pain management.
The Release of Brittney Griner
The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
- Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
- The Russian Playbook: By detaining Ms. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized pain to get the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
- A Test for Women’s Sports: The release was a victory for W.N.B.A. players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight also highlighted gender inequities in sports.
Then there are those hailing the White House for committing an act of mercy in pressing for your return.
I’ll leave the political discussion to someone else. I want to focus on another part of the conversation. Already people are asking: What’s next?
When will you return to the W.N.B.A., your Phoenix Mercury teammates, and the U.S. national team you helped lead to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics?
Roughly a decade ago, you became one of the first Black and openly lesbian headliners in women’s basketball. In your trademark soft-spoken manner, you pushed for racial and social change in America. So will you use this moment to become an even more powerful advocate?
Will you do more, Brittney?
“What’s next” is an understandable query, but I hope folks pump the brakes.
Brittney, you shouldn’t feel you oweanything more than the gratitude you’ve already expressed to those who stood by your side and worked for your release.
You have done more than enough. Don’t feel you have to do anything but heal.
During this ordeal, we all saw the anguish and tears of your wife, Cherelle Griner. She, no surprise, has said the two of you will speak up for Americans the State Department has said were wrongly detained in other countries, including Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018.
Before all this happened, you might not have been well-known outside of sports circles. Now, more and more people have heard about how you were part of a wave of W.N.B.A. players who spoke up for racial injustice. More know that you have fought to help L.G.B.T.Q. people and those without homes in Phoenix.
So it’s exciting to think about your next move and how you can use your platform for good.
When I spoke to Victor Kozar, the Mercury’s president, this week, he mentioned the letters you exchanged over the last several months. “At all times, she was asking about other people,” said Kozar, your boss and friend. “Her concern was about other people. First and foremost, she asked how her teammates were doing, asking us to ensure we were taking care of her wife.”
“That’s B.G.,” he added. “Even under this kind of duress, it was not about her. It was about others.”
Sports stars offer us inspiration in many ways. Most commonly, it’s on fields and courts, through performances that allow us to see how we can be stretched to the limit.
Brittney, you’ve inspired us in ways that matter more than slam dunks, blocked shots, or championships.
When you were freed, I thought about the timing. This week, Congress voted to cement federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages. (It’s a huge deal for me, too, since I have a nonbinary family member and my Black father and white mother married in 1954, when such unions were finally becoming legal in a smattering of states.)
It’s sad that it took until 2022 to ensure such rights, but think about how far we’ve come. Ten or twenty years ago, if you’d been imprisoned in Russia, we probably would not have discussed race, sexual orientation and how those facts of your life put you in danger, this openly and often.
“Brittney’s situation is a sign of progress, a sign that our nation has moved tremendously.” That’s how Victoria Kirby York, the National Black Justice Coalition public policy director, put it when she and I chatted Thursday. She noted the serious work that remains to be done, but added: “We have seen Americans move toward racial justice, and we are only going to see more of that happen, and a big part of it is people like Brittney Griner inviting us to see who they really are.”
Rest with that, Brittney. May it be part of the support that helps you heal.
My guess is that you’ll head back to basketball in due time — particularly when I think about how you grew up, with the game providing solace and healing for a young, Black, gay woman edging toward 7 feet tall in the American South of the 1990s and early 2000s.
If history is any guide, you are likely to continue with advocacy and speaking out.
Now your name and your story have a resonance few in the sports world can top. Who can better speak to our American shortcomings than someone scorned by many at home but also saved and spared by the intense efforts of the U.S. government?
Then again, maybe you don’t do any of this. Brittney, don’t look back or feel bad if you want to ride into the sunset now, healing away from the public eye and maybe staying away for good.
If that’s the decision, wonderful. Either way, we’ve got your back.