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While one of the WNBA’s most talented players is being held in Russia awaiting trial, the near-total public silence surrounding her detention has sown confusion and scrutiny.
What we do know is this: Two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is being held on drug charges that could put her in prison for up to 10 years. Notably, some question whether the allegations are true and whether the US government is doing enough to bring her home amid a global crisis.
Griner, a queer black woman, is not the first American to be detained in Russia. But her predicament stands out for how she draws new attention not only to the fact that American society undervalues professional women’s basketball, but also to how LGBTQ people in the United States and Russia are marginalized differently.
Oscar winner Ben Proudfoot’s plea was among the poignant moments the Will Smith-Chris Rock debacle overshadowed on Sunday. After accepting the Best Documentary (Short) Oscar for “Queen of Basketball,” a film that chronicles Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Lusia Harris, Proudfoot implored President Joe Biden to “bring Brittney Griner back to the House”.
It’s a feeling many might feel in private, but they probably don’t know what to make of it publicly. Basketball legend Lisa Leslie recently explained on the “I Am Athlete” podcast that she was instructed not to make a “big fuss” about Griner’s arrest.
“What we were told, and again, it’s all kind of passed on by hearsay, but what we were told is not to make a big fuss about it so they can’t use him as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation. , during the war,” Leslie said in the interview. “To pretend it’s not that important or not to do where we are, ‘Free Brittney’, and we start this campaign, and then it becomes something they can use.”
Even with the geopolitical complexities, it is important not to look away from the predicament, which significantly intersects with issues of gender and sexual identity. As Aileen Gallagher, a journalism professor at Syracuse University, told CNN, from sports to politics to affinity and identity, “this story has everything we talk about in the United States. right now”.
Here is an overview of these problems in turn:
Like a number of WNBA athletes, Griner doesn’t play for just one team. She is a center for the Phoenix Mercury, but since 2014 has spent the WNBA offseason playing for a Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg. The reason: Abroad, she earns more money – a lot more.
According to the current WNBA (CBA) collective bargaining agreement, the average player cash compensation hovers around $130,000. The league says its top players can earn “over $500,000,” about three times what they could earn under the old CBA.
Yet those numbers are dwarfed by the more than $1 million that players of Griner’s talent can make in Russia, and the millions that even rookie NBA players can make.
This disparity illustrates a larger problem: Since the creation of the WNBA in 1996 – half a century after the creation of the NBA – American society has treated professional women’s basketball as an inferior sport.
“In this country, we’ve kind of decided that sport is for men,” said Kim Crowder, a consultant whose work focuses on diversity and equality. “You see that in the creation of the WNBA – look how long it was after the creation of the NBA – and in the wage disparities. Those two things tell us a lot about who “deserves” to be seen and treated in the professional basketball world as a professional, as the best in their class.”
Crowder went on to say that the problem wasn’t just lack of money; it is also lack of respect.
“If you’ve been to a WNBA game and watched how these women are hustling, then you’re like, ‘These are athletes. These are people who have trained their whole lives for this sport. Why aren’t they not recognized in the same way? Why are they not defended in the same way?” Crowder said.
Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic who joins CNN+ in May to co-host a weekly show with Cari Champion, echoed some of those sentiments in a recent story.
“Russia wouldn’t be a tempting option for America’s top female basketball players if they could earn more at home and be treated with the same professional respect as NBA players,” Hill wrote earlier this month.
She then added, emphatically, “It’s damning that teams from oppressive countries like Russia and China – another opportune market for women’s basketball players – place a higher value on players like Griner than teams from her own. own country.”
Damn, most definitely. But also, given the story, unsurprisingly.
Griner’s longstanding advocacy for LGBTQ people — she’s donated thousands of dollars to support an LGBTQ youth center and served as the grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride Parade — might serve as a reminder of the worrying state of community rights in the states. -United.
For example, on Wednesday, just a day before the International Transgender Day of Visibility observance, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona signed into law two bills targeting transgender youth. One of the laws reduces minors’ access to gender-affirming health care; the other prohibits transgender women and girls from competing on women’s and women’s teams at all public schools and some private schools.
Arizona Republican lawmakers aren’t the only ones consciously deciding to fight with transgender kids. So far this year, GOP governors in Oklahoma, Iowa and South Dakota have signed bills establishing similar sports bans. And in 2021, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia enacted comparable bans.
As I explored in a story earlier this month, such maneuvers are part of a much larger Republican-led movement to undermine the rights and status of LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender children.
For this story, UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler exposed the effects of the above political machinations.
“We’re talking about kids who already feel very different, who are trying to come to terms with their embodiment and their lived sense of who they are and their gender,” Butler said. “This is an extremely vulnerable time for children. They need support. They need space to be able to explore their feelings and to be able to talk freely about their gender and sense of their own reality. They need to be able to communicate everything this to others without fear of blame, stigma, exclusion, discrimination or violence.
The ongoing attacks on LGBTQ Americans only underscore the value of Griner’s advocacy.
Griner’s country of detention also matters. Russia has long been hostile to LGBTQ people like the beloved WNBA player, and things look set to get worse.
Last month, Russia’s Justice Ministry unsuccessfully tried to shut down the Russian LGBT Network, one of the country’s most prominent gay rights groups, for allegedly disseminating “LGBT views” and challenged “traditional values”.
In 2019, the Network said around 40 people were arrested and two killed in a government-sanctioned “anti-gay purge” in Chechnya. (The 2020 documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” highlights the massive persecution of LGBTQ people in the republic.)
And perhaps most infamously, in 2013 Russia passed a “gay propaganda” law that prohibits the distribution of “non-traditional sex propaganda” to minors. Russia’s discriminatory law arms the language of care and protection against an already marginalized group.
“The Gay Propaganda Law was born out of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s very hard conservative turn after 2011 and 2012, when the democratic opposition mobilized street protests against him and he began to attack to various parts of the democratic opposition, starting with feminists and then moving on to LGBTQ communities,” University of Oxford Russian history professor Dan Healey told CNN.
Healey, the author of the 2017 book “Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi,” further noted that in Russia, fear of anti-LGBTQ oppression has increased since the invasion of Ukraine by the country in February.
“Putin said something like, ‘We have internal enemies – people who don’t support us in this war – and those people need to be purged,'” Healey said. “That was the language that Putin used. It went back to Stalinist vocabulary. A lot of LGBTQ people noticed that. If they hadn’t already packed their bags, they started doing it then.
It’s too early to tell how Griner’s sexual identity might affect his journey through the Russian justice system. Even so, the country’s past and present treatment of LGBTQ people makes its problems all the more acute.
Griner’s detention comes at a time of escalating crises everywhere. But the WNBA star’s story deserves just as much attention.