Earl Ofari Hutchinson
NBA superstar Lebron James took much heat for his off-the-cup quip about detained WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. James wondered aloud if America had her back for not immediately bringing her home. When the predictable firestorm of criticism hit, James quickly backpedaled and praised “our beautiful country.”
James though was not too far off with his initial quip but not because of what prompted him to muse aloud about the country. It has nothing to do with America’s supposed inaction on Griner. President Biden to his credit has repeatedly publicly spoken out about Griner. He has protested her detention, pledged to do whatever he can to secure her release, and called her detention “wrongful.” There is much talk about a prisoner swap to get her back home.
That aside, the James furor, obscures the real reasons that Griner landed in a Russian slammer in the first place. Griner is not just a scrub, end of the bench, professional basketball player. She’s a bona fide NBA superstar. She’s also a woman, and the WNBA could hardly be mistaken for the NBA. The gaping pay disparity, the lucrative endorsement deals, the mediocre attendance for many WNBA games, and the almost media after-thought coverage of the WNBA compared to the NBA is staggering. It’s basically a woman’s sport in a game world dominated by men.
That forced Griner, and many other talented female professional basketball players, to pack their bags and shuffle off to Russia, and other foreign locales to make some semblance of the money that she and the other women could never hope to make playing pro ball in America. This points to another issue with Griner in particular. She’s a genuine top talented women’s professional basketball player. She has name recognition, and that marks her as a celebrity. So, traveling to Russia, she was bound to draw more scrutiny from authorities.
She’s been knocked by some for not knowing the rules of travel, and for being careless about bringing in drugs. That’s to say, she’s to blame for her plight and her alleged irresponsible action.
That begs the larger question. That is whether she got even more marked attention because of who she is. And whether because of her name and fame, she was ripe to be made a political pawn. Her arrest came at the moment that Russia has taken so much heat in the U.S. for its hideous, brutal attempt to destroy Ukraine. Griner is tailor-made to try and divert attention from Russia’s war of annihilation to a celebrity basketball player who broke the law.
Griner is not just an African American female basketball player. She’s an African American female lesbian basketball player. Race, gender, politics, war, and same sex issues swirl around her. Russia has long been one of the most hostile nations on the planet toward same sex and LGBT relations–harassing, attacking, jailing, and legislating against LGBT relations.
At the same time, many places in the US would openly and subtly applaud Russia’s anti LGBT bias. Griner is equal opprobrium in Russia and in those places in the US. It is no accident that her arrest and incarceration in a Russian jail in February did not immediately draw an international outcry and stir quick action and condemnation by the US government.
The issues surrounding not just her case, but her were too murky and loaded with doubt and controversy to quickly move the government and public opinion to brand her arrest an injustice and demand action.
Griner perhaps read the tea leafs in her case and pleaded guilty to the charge. However, once her case began to draw the kind of international attention it should have drawn from the start, she has had second thoughts. She protests that she did not attempt to peddle drugs and that her drugs were solely for her personal use, legally obtained, and medically prescribed.
There will be more court appearances, and she’ll have another chance to make the case that she as Biden and the US government have said was “wrongfully detained.”
Lebron may have been fumbling and indiscreet in how he chose his words initially to bash the US government in the Griner case. However, because his words do carry weight, it has at least forced many more people to take a fresh look at her plight.
There are many cautionary takeaways from her case that go far beyond LeBron, the government’s action, and the public response to her. That is when the issues of race, gender, same-sex, and celebrity crash together, and things get muddled and complicated. But worse, the biases that each of these issues engenders always lurk just beneath the surface, and inevitably explode to the surface. Whether Griner is a political pawn or victim as many contend or a victim of her own carelessness, is less important now than simply seeing justice done. In her case, bring her home.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Midterms: Why they are So Important and So Ignored (Middle Passage Press) He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays, 9:00 AM 90.7 FM.