Grim Until Griner: The Year in Sports and Politics

Grim Until Griner: The Year in Sports and Politics

Grim Until Griner: The Year in Sports and Politics

In 2022, silence and fear ruled the day. But Brittney Griner’s freedom provides a road map for all of us.

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There is a famous, apocryphal quote about the onset of revolution: “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” Flip that quote on its head, and you can understand what the politics of sports has felt like since the summer of 2020. It’s been less than three years, but it feels like decades. Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde on prison, “Each day is like a year. A year whose days are long.”

In 2020, the sports world was at the heart of the largest set of demonstrations in US history, following the police murder of George Floyd. Yet in 2022, as this country faced a seething and violent right wing, fear and silence ruled the day. It’s not surprising. Athletes don’t live in a hermetically sealed universe apart from the rest of the world. Instead, they reflect the trends in society: a confused populace in retreat and a right wing puking up the barbarism of decades past. But while the sports world is most certainly shaped by all of this, it is also a shaper.

The past 12 months have been defined politically by a rise in fatal police shootings, the public ascension of fascism-curious billionaire Elon Musk as arbiter of what constitutes free speech (Nazis good, critics bad), November elections that had anyone to the left of Heinrich Himmler—or Kari Lake—holding their breath, and a relentless attack on transgender youth. And yet the “new generation of athlete activists” were little heard through this maelstrom of crisis. There were exceptions, of course: the minority of athletes who raised the name of Brittney Griner while she suffered in prison should never be forgotten, especially as her industry largely turned its back. Megan Rapinoe’s defense of trans women in sports was vital, if not drowned out by the hate. And the minor league players baseball players organizing their own union was bracing; a reflection of the broader rumble by low-wage laborers from Starbucks to university workers to Amazon.

But political courage was not the dominant trend. The year began with the Winter Olympics in China, which signaled that the politics of sports wouldn’t be devoted to confronting racism or injustice but instead to the finely honed art of sportswashing. Sportswashing is when regimes use the thrill of organized sports to distract the populace and a compliant media while pushing through authoritarian economic reforms or a crackdown upon dissent to which the people would otherwise object. Following China’s Olympics, the big sports stories of the year included the Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-dollar investment in the Liv golf tour, as a rival to the Professional Golfers Association. Then there is Qatar, a country whose leaders shrugged off the deaths of countless numbers of migrant workers while gaining prestige from authoritarians and despots around the world for hosting the World Cup. Qatar has shown that even an unfathomable $220 billion investment is piddling compared to the reputational capital accrued from having the world’s spotlight thrust upon you. As Los Angeles prepares to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, we see the city’s own authoritarian tendencies in how it’s treating the unhoused population.

In such an atmosphere, it should not surprise that athletes felt defensive, embattled, and unsure. After all, why should they be so different from the rest of us struggling to figure out how to agitate for change in a society in a perpetual state of agitation?

Brittney Griner’s hellish odyssey reveals much about where the sports world is politically and where it needs to go. Far from uniting with one voice, most of the sports media ignored her plight, and many athletes and the media followed suit. The disrespect and erasure she endured seemed all too familiar to the marginalized communities that saw themselves in Griner. It also reflected how women’s sports are marginalized more generally. An NBA star’s social media posting of an anti-Semitic video far outpaced coverage of Griner’s incarceration. This only changed toward the last quarter of the year when Griner’s wife, Cherelle, started speaking out and demanding that Biden administration get Brittney home. Much of the WNBA and NBA communities followed, and now she is home. Our success in this task, just in time for the holidays, stands as the highlight of the year and a reminder of how quickly change can emerge in even the most desperate hours.

It’s the only constant fact of political history: ebb and flow. In 2019, no one could have predicted what we would see in the summer of 2020. Similarly, however difficult today may be, there is always the possibility of deliverance around the corner. Remember that Brittney Griner chopped off her locks in a Russian penal colony because they were freezing in the cold and she was preparing for nine years of hard labor. Before the month was out, she was smiling like it was Christmas morning, back with Cherelle. In her first comments back as a free person, she fought for those still imprisoned. We have to learn from Brittney Griner. We have to prepare for the long fight. We have to appreciate victory. And of course, we must, even when life is at its most grim, keep the faith.

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