When Brittney Griner was freed from Russian captivity three days ago, the basketball world rejoiced.
The U.S. government traded the WNBA star for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in a prisoner swap that concluded months of tedious talks between the two countries. Griner, convicted in August of possessing a small amount of hashish oil and a vape cartridge, had been sentenced to serve almost a decade in a Russian penal colony.
But though the trade was hailed in sports circles as a victory, others decried it. President Joe Biden was ridiculed as making the U.S. look “weak” by taking Griner, and he was criticized for not holding out for American hostage Paul Whelan to also be included in the deal.
Many of the critics were legislators, who also took aim at Griner’s identity: a Black, queer woman who had joined her Phoenix Mercury teammates in not being in the arena during the national anthem, beginning after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.
And though the rhetoric itself is unfortunate, the fact that there was blow back in Griner’s case is ultimately an encouraging sign.
Let’s first acknowledge how monumental the trade was for the Olympian and All-Star: this was the first time a woman had been the focal trade piece in a national prisoner swap. And to top that, she is a member of three groups that are marginalized around the world in her race, her gender and her sexual orientation.
Almost 20 years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle made a joke that terrorists never take Black hostages because they have no trade value, while homophobia was still rampant in the U.S. So much has changed since then.
This past summer and fall, Iranian women began protesting violence and discrimination against women in that country, for refusing to wear hijabs. They not only haven’t stopped, but have been joined by men.
At the World Cup in Qatar this month, protesters have disrupted events and defied rules prohibiting wearing the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. It is clear that many traditionally-marginalized people on planet Earth are not willing to put up with discrimination any longer.
Griner’s trade is a signal that she matters, so it is not surprising that those who do not want people like her to matter will speak out against her, and against her mattering. It is reminiscent of the way some social media trolls will insult women’s basketball: they are upset that the athletes are getting the attention. It says everything about them, and nothing about the players they rail against.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King has pointed out repeatedly that although her father is loved and lauded now, he was “the most hated man in America” when he was an activist. Those that stand up to wrong, fight for change, and who are who they are unapologetically, will always get the hate, at least initially.
A Black, queer female athlete was a political prisoner, and her country negotiated her release. People across the world are continuing to fight – and put their lives at risk – to speak out against sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hate. It is important to look past the negative rhetoric in Griner’s case and remember the big picture: the needle of progress is moving. We are finally starting to see change, in both big and small ways.
Griner played basketball today for the first time in 10 months. If we see her back on a WNBA court next season, which it sounds like we may, it is important to continue to keep that large view in mind: we need to keep fighting for change. Step by step, despite the pain that comes with it, we have to keep walking.