Show caption Brittney Griner played for China’s Zhejiang Golden Bulls in 2014. Photograph: ESPN Brittney Griner told me her fear of being alone and forgotten. Don’t let it come true Melissa Johnson Given the US state department’s reclassification of the basketball star as ‘wrongfully detained’ – the moment to speak out is now Tue 3 May 2022 22.22 BST Share on Facebook
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Brittney Griner dropped her impassive game face, looked at me with big sad eyes and said, “The nightmare for me was definitely feeling like I was forgotten and that I was going to end up alone.”
I no longer saw a superstar. My heart ached for a young person who was an ocean away from everyone she knew. “Got here and I was all alone… I was just like ah, hell no, my life is coming to an end,” she said.
We cannot allow Brittney’s fear of being forgotten, alone and far from home come true.
It was 2014 and we sat in an empty conference room in Hangzhou, China. I’d flown 20 hours from Los Angeles to direct an ESPN documentary about her inaugural season overseas. Fresh out of college, she was drowning in homesickness. She didn’t speak the language and no one on her team spoke English. She didn’t like the food and survived off KFC, Pizza Hut and Skittles. And she spent her waking hours either on the hardwood or in her gray penthouse suite at the Zijingang International Hotel. Imagine all of the melancholy of Lost in Translation and none of the Bill Murray.
She was there for the money. As the No 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, Brittney made $49,000 in her first season for the Phoenix Mercury against the $600,000 she earned with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. If a women’s basketball player wants to make top dollar, she must go overseas. Half of the WNBA travels to countries like China, Russia, Turkey and France for much higher salaries, which raises the question whether their careers in the US count as their real off-season.
As I rewatch her interview footage today, I’m haunted by the sense that Brittney is talking about her fears not then, but now, from inside a Russian prison cell where she’s been held since 17 February. Again, she’s overseas because that’s where the money is. UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she’s played since 2015 and won back-to-back championships, pays her more than $1m, compared to roughly $228,000 from the Phoenix Mercury.
Moscow alleges that she was caught with hashish oil at Sheremetyevo Airport, a crime punishable by 10 years in prison. But why should we jump to the conclusion that this Black woman is a criminal and that Russian officials aren’t lying? After years of passing through customs in Russia, do we believe she’d pack hashish oil now? The accusation of “large-scale drug transportation” by Russian authorities would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so terrifyingly high.
Remember, this is the government that claims the warship Moskva burst into “fire of unknown origin” a few weeks ago instead of admitting that in all likelihood Ukrainian missiles were responsible for its sinking.
The author with Brittney Griner in 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Melissa Johnson
I trust Russian officials to tell the truth about Brittney as much as I trust a sieve to hold water.
Until Tuesday’s announcement from the US Department of State reclassifying Brittney as “wrongfully detained,” the White House, the WNBA and Brittney’s family have been largely quiet. As former WNBA star Lisa Leslie said, “What we were told was to not make a big fuss about it, so they could not use her as a pawn so to speak in this situation in war.”
When I first heard this directive, I didn’t question it. I didn’t post about Brittney on social media. So often as women we are told to behave, to trust experts who know better – to comply. I’m a documentary filmmaker. I don’t know anything about international hostage negotiations.
The time for silence is now over.
Weeks have given way to months. A Moscow court recently announced that her detention will be extended to 19 May – a date that could be moved further into the future faster than you can say “human rights violation”. According to Tom Firestone, a former legal advisor to the US embassy in Moscow, Brittney could be held without trial for up to 18 months.
Tuesday’s policy change from the White House may help shorten her sentence but it could just as easily make things worse during a time of heightened political tension between the US and Russia. Brittney may turn out to be a political hostage in a violent, homophobic country run by a sociopath who once called teaching gender fluidity “a crime against humanity”.
Brittney, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has also won NCAA, WNBA and EuroLeague championships, is the rock star of women’s basketball. She dunks at will, flaunts her gender non-conformity in couture suits, and not unlike the other Britney, likes to wear albino snakes. She’s a Black, queer woman on her second marriage and a proud LGBTQ+ activist. Few hate the values that Brittney embodies more than Vladimir Putin.
We must not wait for her trial to be changed again. Or – God forbid – only stomp, scream, and make all the fuss too late, after we learn she has vanished under “mysterious circumstances.”
I believe that the Biden Administration and Brittney’s team have been working hard behind closed doors to bring her home. I also believe that the “please don’t make a fuss” embargo has provided cover for the misogyny and racism of many Americans.
Look for the self-righteous “she’s getting what she deserves” attitude. Some American “patriots” hate Brittney for exercising her right to stay in the locker room for the national anthem to honor Breonna Taylor and other victims of police brutality. They don’t want to hear that she said, “I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”
Ask yourself what the hell that’s about.
Roughly 100,000 Black women and girls went missing in 2020 in the United States – yet they rarely make national headlines. According to NPR, media outlets are four times more likely to report on a missing white person versus someone who is Black or brown. (Some call this “missing white woman syndrome.”)
In Brittney’s case, when does cooperative silence become complicit neglect? The answer is right now. Today’s announcement from the state department leaves no doubt.
Imagine that instead of a 6ft 9in, tattooed, dreadlocked, Black woman in a Russian prison, it was a pretty blonde with a husband back home. Or what if it had been LeBron James or Steph Curry? Or Tom Brady? People would have lost their damn minds. “Don’t make a fuss” wouldn’t have been an option because no matter what the State Department might decree, it would have been a headline in every news broadcast and mentioned on ESPN twice an hour. Candlelight fan vigils would have dotted America from sea to shining sea.
Perhaps such “a fuss” would have been bad for hostage negotiations – but the lack of outcry says everything about why Brittney had to go to an authoritarian, homophobic country in order to get paid in the first place.
At the end of my shoot in China with Brittney, I asked one last question:
“Flight or invisibility, which power would you choose?”
What a dumb question. Obviously a basketball player would choose flight.
“Invisibility,” she said with conviction.
I furrowed my brow. But it made sense as I followed her through the bowels of the Shanghai subway station – every neck craned to behold a young legend striding past. At an outdoor market too many people pointed and stared for me to count. She graciously posed for photos with fan after fan. It must be exhausting to be a spectacle everywhere you go.
I didn’t use the invisibility moment in the film, but I find myself obsessing over it these days. As if out of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, it feels like her wish has been granted, but in the form of a curse.
I wish she had chosen flight.