If only Brittney Griner had slapped Chris Rock, then maybe people would be saying her name. The near-silence surrounding Griner’s unjust detention in Russia has long seemed both sadly predictable and somewhat curious. It is sadly predictable that a sports world awash in NFL takes and that ignores women’s sports would erase regular updates on Griner’s existence as a political prisoner. Griner is a Black, queer woman in a league that receives reservoirs of disrespect. The sports world, as has been said often, would be in an uproar if this were Tom Brady. They aren’t, and it’s damning.
The curious part is why Griner’s colleagues in the WNBA have mirrored that silence. WNBA legend Lisa Leslie went public with what a lot of us have heard behind the scenes: that they have been instructed to keep quiet and exercise personal censorship for the sake of a broader political strategy aimed at securing her release and bringing her home. In an interview released late on Friday, Leslie said, “What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation in the war. So, to make it like it’s not that important or don’t make it where we’re like, ‘Free Brittney’ and we start this campaign, and then it becomes something that they can use.”
This is a tactical strategy: to not turn Griner into a cause célèbre and instead let the “experts” do their job. It’s also a tactical strategy that is not working. Here are some other factoids we learned last week about Griner’s plight. Having been arrested in mid-February, she will not see a courtroom until May 18. Once she enters what will be a kangaroo court, she will be facing a 10-year prison sentence and a number of those years could be spent at a labor camp. A reminder that she was arrested right at the start of Russia’s Ukraine invasion at a Moscow airport for the “crime” of having hashish oil in her luggage. One would have to be naive as a newborn to think she will get a fair trial, given the near total absence of diplomatic relations between the US and Russia. That leads to yet another news nugget from the week that was: Confirmation that officials from the US have finally after weeks been able to see Griner. The only comment received was “Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition and we will continue to do everything we can to see to that it she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal.” Russian officials responded to this by saying that Griner has been available to be seen but that the US hasn’t asked, something that beggars belief.
Please take a step back from the situation, because we are dealing right now with a series of bad choices: The US State Department and whatever private attorneys or negotiators are involved have called for silence: no grassroots movement, no international uproar, no upsetting what they clearly see as a delicate situation. Their strategy has brought us to a point where Griner is facing years at a labor camp. The need to switch strategies and the need to let Russia and Putin know that the whole world is watching when Griner finally sees the inside of a court room May 18 has never felt more pressing.
The time for silence has passed. Brittney Griner is a political prisoner, and we need to treat her as such and bring the kind of spotlight and international solidarity that so desperately needed. It’s time to shame and name. We should be shaming the sports press for yapping it up about the NFL off-season 24/7 and pretending that Griner is not sharing a small cell with others in a bed too short for her six-foot-nine frame. We should be shaming the sports press and the political elites for their heteronormative discomfort in raising the name of a Black queer woman with tattoos and a remarkably brave wife. And for those of us who have love for Griner and all she means on and off the court, we need to break the silence.
Yes, it’s time for the rallies, the hashtags, the petitions, and the press conferences. Does the State Department truly believe that raising up Griner’s name will make the situation worse? How much worse can it possibly get? By raising Griner’s name up to the light, at least we have the hope of creating an untenable situation for Putin as he continues a war in search of an off-ramp. It’s not just democracy that dies in darkness. Political prisoners quite literally die when their names are swallowed in our throats instead of shouted to the heavens. Free Brittney Griner. Bring her home. Stop the sports media blackout. And end the tactical silence.