Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
When Cherelle Griner, resplendent in joyful red, took the podium from President Joe Biden at the White House, she said all of the hard things.
Biden already had confirmed with a straightforward and powerful tweet — “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.” — that the basketball star’s nearly 10-month detention in Russia was, indeed over, and gave brief remarks verifying the news, as well as the fact that US businessman Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia on charges of espionage (which he has denied) since December, 2018, was not, as the US had hoped, part of the deal.
The emotional complications of such a moment were left to Cherelle Griner to express.
“So today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole,” she told the press. “And so, BG is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home.”
As the pre-dawn whispers came to light that Griner had been released in a one for one prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” the undeniable elation of Griner’s family, friends, teammates and fans was indeed tempered by the fact that Whelan was not coming home.
While both Biden and Cherelle Griner emphasized the importance of keeping Whelan in the conversation, they did not — as they should not — let that vanquish the euphoria regarding Griner’s return stateside.
Yet upon Griner’s return, many questions remain. What does her ordeal mean and what comes next?
While the US State Department described the allegations against Griner as “wrongful,” public response to her detainment and subsequent trial and conviction for carrying vape dispensers containing trace amounts of hashish oil became a primer on so many things.
Responses to her plight were perhaps especially revealing about sexism and the role of women in elite sport, with reactions on Twitter ranging from those who claimed Griner had it coming — if you do the crime, you do the time — doing battle with teammates and fans who demanded her release.
Would the path to getting her home have been different if she played in the NBA instead of the WNBA? Would she have been in Russia at all — a place that until her detainment treated (and paid) her like the star that she is — if not for the excessive gendered chasm that exists in the paychecks of American professional athletes?
We know the answers to these questions. Now that she is coming home, what becomes of her legacy because of this time spent in the headlines off the court, off the sport page?
As Griner saw a wedding anniversary, a birthday and a WNBA season from behind the bars of a holding cell that could barely contain her towering figure, it became clear that much of the public knew of Griner only as a political pawn, rather than the generational athlete that she is — the owner of the dunking record in the WNBA.
Yet her Phoenix Mercury teammates, her coach, her fans and her family rallied around her, demanding that the campaign to bring her home safely stay center stage in the complex landscape of diplomatic imbroglios. At the WNBA All-Star game in Chicago last summer, players wore jerseys bearing her name and number — the historically significant 42 — during the second half of the game, while the league deemed Griner an honorary starter.
Seeing Griner’s name on that roster is part and parcel of a career with stats that are simply indisputable. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Griner is a seven-time WBNA All-Star. Her impact on the sport is the stuff that, well, legends are made of: in the gold medal game against Japan at the Tokyo Olympics last year, Griner hit 30 points on 14-of-18 shooting, adding five rebounds and three blocks to her card — a record for points scored by a US woman in a gold-medal game.
But now Griner’s legacy has taken a sharp turn, the magic she has conjured on the court replaced by images of her in that Russian holding cell, stories of the penal colony outside of Moscow where she recently was sent to serve the nine-year sentence handed down by the Russian court and repeated questions from those who still fail to understand why an elite American athlete chooses to play in Russia.
“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Griner’s coach, Vanessa Nygaard, asked last July. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
Griner’s return, however, is no less political than her detainment. While properly deemed a victory for the Biden administration after a critical final midterm win in Georgia on Tuesday, and Griner’s freedom a joyous outcome worth its cost, the return of Bout also gives Vladimir Putin, who for months had been called noncommittal regarding a swap for Griner, a victory in a week when he likely felt he really needed one.
Amidst news that Russia’s campaign against Ukraine continues to fail on many levels, and Time’s naming of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky as its 2022 Person of the Year, a statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about Bout celebrates the work to “rescue our compatriot” and affirms that the “Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”
As for Griner, what comes next should be up to her, with questions of whether or not she will return to the court best left for another day. Instead of jumping into those narratives, perhaps we could pause, take a breath and think about how Griner’s nightmare has revealed so much about things that should never be glossed over. Cherelle Griner said it best at the White House: what must not be forgotten are those families, the Whelans especially included, who still are not whole.
An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly described one of Brittney Griner’s achievements in the WNBA. Griner holds the dunking record but Lisa Leslie was the first player in the league to dunk.