Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian penal colony Thursday as part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was met with widespread celebration. Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison after vape canisters and cannabis oil were discovered in her luggage at the airport. President Joe Biden’s announcement that Griner was safely on a plane bound for the U.S. means the gay WNBA star will miraculously make it home to her wife and family in time for the holidays.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the basketball star’s release was also met with (another) round of backlash.
But perhaps not surprisingly, the basketball star’s release was also met with (another) round of backlash. Many of these criticisms, which gained traction online, have once again centered on Griner’s perceived lack of patriotism. But this kind of litmus test has long been rigged against Black Americans. As with the culture war over critical race theory, conservatives are quick to weaponize criticisms of American history or misbehavior in an attempt to police Americanness and keep Black advocacy against racism and white supremacy at bay.
In 2020, amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests decrying police brutality and racism, Griner stated that the national anthem shouldn’t be played during games and refused to be on the floor while it played. Griner is an articulate athlete, and her intention was always clear. “I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years,” she told The Arizona Republic at the time. “I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”
And yet, we have tweets proliferating across social media accusing Griner of disrespecting the American flag (she didn’t) or kneeling during the national anthem (also not true).
Per these conservatives, Brittney Griner doesn’t deserve our sympathy — or even to be freed from a Russian penal colony — because she has some reservations about the way Black people in America have historically been treated.
“So we left the other American who’s been there FOUR YEARS, gave Russia their arms dealer back, and all we got was an anthem kneeler that can’t pack a suitcase without putting drugs in it?” aspiring GOP lawmaker Sam Ditzhazy wrote in a tweet liked over 14,000 times.
“I wonder if she will respect our flag and country now,” self-proclaimed Trump supporter Collin Rugg wrote in a tweet liked 21,000 times.
“You just freed the merchant of death in exchange for someone who cavalierly broke the laws of the country she was visiting and won’t even stand for the US National Anthem,” Twitter user Joe Colangelo tweeted (8,000 likes).
The harsh truth, of course, is that America is not, and never has been, a perfect country.
The harsh truth, of course, is that America is not, and never has been, a perfect country. White Americans fought tooth and nail to preserve slavery here. Black people didn’t gain the right to vote without enduring white violence. Schools in America weren’t desegregated without the angry mob of white people who gathered to jeer and spit at little Black children.
As a result, Griner is just one of many athletes who have used their cultural status to protest civil rights abuses. In 1996, Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem, because he believed the flag was “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” Bill Russell and four other Boston Celtics players boycotted a game in Lexington, Kentucky, after they were refused service at their hotel coffee shop. Players’ refusal to play in the American Football League’s All-Star Game in segregated New Orleans in 1965 resulted in the game’s being moved to Houston and ultimately accelerated desegregation efforts in the Big Easy. After declaring himself a conscientious objector to military service, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. war in Vietnam, which cost him his heavyweight titles, got him banned from boxing for three years and resulted in an all-white jury’s sentencing him to five years in prison. Public sentiment wasn’t in favor of Ali’s protest. Nevertheless, in 1971 the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in a unanimous vote, proving the public’s popular opinion isn’t always aligned with what will later be viewed as standing on the right side of history.
Civil disobedience is patriotic. Peaceful protest is patriotic. Speaking out about injustice is patriotic. Arguing otherwise, ironically, flies in the face of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This logic has never gelled with conservatives who support free speech — but only when they agree with it. Black Americans like Griner, who have wealth, power and cultural clout, are accused of treason in a transparent attempt to silence and smear them. They are told to be good patriots and then shouted down for exercising the fruits of that patriotism. The game is rigged.
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In July, former President Donald Trump maligned Griner as a “potentially spoiled person” who went to Russia “loaded up with drugs.” Does that make him a real patriot? Or a washed-up politician who will do anything to try to remain relevant? Luckily for Griner, Biden has no time for such performative cruelty.
There will most likely always be some white people who believe being an American means ignoring its problems. These are the same people who believe progress is scary and social equality is threatening. Such outdated definitions of patriotism disgrace the national anthem and the flag more than any peaceful protest ever could.
Ultimately, Brittney Griner is many things. She is a Black LGBTQ American, a wife, a daughter, an advocate, an Olympian and a world-class basketball star. But most important, she is coming home.