We are BG
Every morning for the last several months, I have reached for a small orange and black pin from the top of my bureau and attached it to whatever I’m wearing that day – a dress, a blouse, a tee, a sweatshirt. “We Are BG,” reads the pin, and every day that I wear it, at least one person asks me what it means, making at least one more person who knows about the detainment of basketball legend Brittney Griner in a Russian prison.
Of course, at this point, if someone doesn’t know who Griner is, well, I don’t quite know what to tell them.
People’s response to Griner’s detainment speaks volumes about what we do and don’t know about international relations, diplomatic entanglements, and – perhaps most of all – women in sports in the United States. We have seen, to be sure, her teammates, her coach, her fans, and her wife rally around her, vocalizing the need to bring her home. At the recent WNBA All-Star game in Chicago, players wore jerseys bearing her name and number – 42 – for the second half of the game, and the league named Griner an honorary starter.
Seeing her name on that roster, of course, was not unfamiliar – the two-time Olympic gold medalist is a seven-time All-Star. Indeed, few athletes, if any, can step to Griner’s impact on basketball. In Tokyo last summer, the Phoenix Mercury standout – known as the first player to dunk in the WNBA -- brought in 30 points on 14-of-18 shooting, with five rebounds and three blocks to boot, setting a record for points scored by an American woman in a gold-medal game.
Yet now, instead of knowing her for the magic she has created on the court, people know Griner for sitting in a Russian holding cell, having now pleaded guilty to charges the U.S. State Department has called “wrongful” (and if only the U.S. would expand that conversation to talk about the ridiculous billions of dollars spent on racially biased marijuana arrests in this country). Her plea is, according to most legal pundits, part of a strategy to best navigate a system in which only one percent of those charged get off. And still, the stupid questions continue, perhaps especially the question as to why anyone would want to play in Russia in the first place – a stark indicator of how people fail to understand that many of the WNBA’s top athletes play abroad because it generates their chief paycheck, bringing in hundreds of thousands more dollars than anything they can find on playing on American courts.
Now Griner continues to await her fate, with the situation between Russia and Ukraine, and thus Russia and the U.S., greatly complicating the so-called gentlemen’s agreement for athletes who live abroad, a general understanding that athletes can live their lives as they live them in the U.S. President Biden, of course, has finally gotten on board, joining the chorus who saw the 150-day mark come and go amidst a Twitterverse that continues to claim that she had it coming, she broke a law, she should face the consequences, and – inexplicably – that Trump would’ve had her out by now.
It is her Phoenix coach, however, Vanessa Nygaard, who said the quiet part out loud. “If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” she asked. “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.”
For his part, LeBron, too – and to much backlash, especially from (and this both pains me and does not surprise me) retired Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling – asserted that Griner’s absence was a reminder that equality is still so far from being the norm, that it was clear how America did not, in his words, have her back.
But as headlines now focus on the spat between LeBron and Schilling, and whether or not a prisoner exchange is in the works to bring Griner home, I will continue to wear my small orange and black pin, answering questions about what it means, and hoping for the day that I no longer feel compelled to wear it, a day in which the most talented in our country don’t need to go abroad to feel valued.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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