Brittney Griner is a force on the basketball court. He’s a powerful 6-foot-9 center who dunks, dodges and runs through defenders for a layup. In games, his positioning is amazing. She’s often the tallest person on the court, but finds a way to move through the gaps for a perfect jump or layup opportunity. Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), UMMC Yekaterinburg in Russia, and the United States Women’s National Basketball Team.
Griner is a legendary basketball player. She is the only National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) male or female player to have totaled both 2,000 points and 500 blocks. She was an integral part of teams that won an NCAA championship, a WNBA championship, a Euroleague title and two Olympic gold medals. Griner made several all-star teams and during the 2013–14 season was named playoff defensive player. In 2013, she was the first pick in the WNBA Draft. She went lesbian shortly after being drafted, then became the first queer athlete signed to represent Nike. At 31, Griner is in her prime, but she’s not playing.
She is being held in a Russian prison for allegedly having vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Griner has been imprisoned since February, but the the exact date is unknown. When news of his detention first broke in early March, several high-profile politicians and athletes spoke out. The WNBA released a statement of support for Griner. His wife Cherelle Griner, posted on Instagram after the news broke.
“Thank you to everyone who has contacted me regarding the safe return of my wife from Russia…I understand that many of you have come to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details,” wrote Cherelle Griner on March 5. respect our privacy as we continue to work to bring my wife home safely.
Since early March, coverage has declined in mainstream media. This is partly due to the US government telling those close to him to be quiet in hopes that their channels of communication can free Griner. Given the situation in Russia, however, silence is unlikely to help free her.
“Unfortunately, we see people saying to themselves: “It’s only a big mistake that will disappear in a few days”. Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, detained in Tehran for 544 days in 2014, told CNN. “Removing his detention does him a disservice, these things don’t magically resolve themselves.
An equally important part of the silence centers on Griner’s identity as a black, queer athlete. Dave Zirin ’96 supported in The nation that Griner’s identity has”only earned him silencefrom the GOP. He says they should brag about the Biden administration’s failure to negotiate his release from Russia. Instead, silence.
“[It’s the] the exact opposite of “missing white woman syndrome,” said Aileen Gallagher, a journalism professor at Syracuse University. NPR.
Missing white woman syndrome refers to the uninterrupted media coverage that occurs when a white woman goes missing, such as last summer’s media maelstrom following the disappearance of Gabby Petito. For women of color, this is often not the case. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement, for example, works to raise awareness about the lack of response from the media and law enforcement when Indigenous women go missing. Likewise, with Griner, the story all but died out within days.
“We can’t ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner weren’t a black woman, it would be plastered on the news that she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia,” said U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D- Mo.) wrote in a tweet.
Through social media, fans and politicians like Bush pushed the Griner story. WNBA fans launched a online petition to “ensure the safe and speedy return of Brittney Griner to the United States”, which collected 75,000 signatures. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even tweeted,britney free.”
Some sportswriters have also drawn comparisons between coverage of white male athletes — like Tom Brady’s change in retirement status — and the lack of Griner news.
“If this was an NBA player of her caliber…it would be on the cover of not just every sports page, but every page of the news media around the world,” Tamryn Spurill, reporter athlete writing a book about the WNBA, told the BBC.
Griner, despite public and private efforts, remains detained. His detention will last at least until May 19, barring major developments. The Russian legal system, notoriously rigged against American prisonerscould still postpone her trial, convict her of the dubious charges or bring other charges against her.
The silence around Griner – one of the greatest basketball players of all time – is frustrating, disturbing and disappointing. It is a demonstration of the institutional racism, sexism and homophobia of mainstream American media and the unequal treatment of men’s and women’s sports in the media.
We must pay attention to Brittney Griner, demand transparency in efforts to secure her release, and support her when she returns. Free Brittney Griner.