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Brittney Griner is free, but reclaiming her story will be no easy task

Phoenix Mercury fan Carley Givens takes a photo of a mural depicting Brittney Griner outside Footprint Center in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
5 min

After spending most of the year locked away in a faraway jail cell, Brittney Griner is free.

President Biden, whose administration negotiated her release, applauded his people for making one more American family whole again. The WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, which hosted a “Bring BG Home” rally this summer before she was sentenced to 9½ years in prison, praised the power and platform of its league. And conservatives, or at least those who blanketed themselves in bitterness because Griner once refused to stand for the national anthem, criticized Biden’s decision to make a prisoner swap with the Russians that did not include former Marine Paul Whelan.

Griner, finally, is free again, but she is no longer her own. Unjustly imprisoned and robbed of her distinguishing identity as a game changer in women’s basketball, she will now be regarded as an avatar for her many champions — or as a mannequin standing in to take the hits from her many detractors.

The shame of Griner’s confinement is that the very thing that made her a mark for the Russian government — her status as an American athlete known for her physical, graceful and competitive dominance — will be featured in the second paragraph of her updated biography. The first paragraph now begins: Brittney Griner, former political prisoner ...

With that, she became an ornament. That’s a topic over which some can boast, as the president did Thursday while conducting a roll call of gratitude and emphasizing his administration’s work in bringing home Americans wrongfully imprisoned overseas.

Updates on the release of Brittney Griner.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said. “We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hard-working public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.”

Even the National Basketball Players Association, the brotherly branch of the women’s players union that showed its sporadic support on social media or by wearing T-shirts, nudged its way into Thursday’s celebration as well, commending its own small contribution toward her emancipation.

She also became pundits’ new favorite chew toy, a subject tossed about in political grievances as many did on social media Thursday, complaining about a deal that swapped Griner for a Russian arms dealer. Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since Donald Trump was in office, remains in custody. He deserves to come home just like Griner because he’s a citizen of this country who has been wrongfully detained — just like Griner was.

David Whelan, though disappointed his brother remains behind bars, said in a statement that he does not “begrudge” Griner. Still, her critics want to see Biden’s decision as a black-and-white one in which he should have picked the former Marine, not the athlete who called for the WNBA to stop playing the national anthem before games.

Those critics may not have to wonder whether she will now stand for the song because who can guess when or if Griner, who turned 32 while in prison, will play again?

Even if she does return, her basketball legacy has changed. Will we remember that Griner was the first WNBA player to dunk twice in a game? And that she accomplished that feat in her first professional outing? Griner is the rare athlete who had success wherever she played — an appearance in a Texas high school state title game, an NCAA championship at Baylor, a WNBA trophy, two gold medals at the Olympics. Yet there are no blueprints for the homecoming of a superstar athlete-turned-political prisoner.

For now, however, there is relief. Dawn Staley, who coached Griner in the Olympics and advocated for her daily, said she cried over the news. Even Kim Mulkey, who offered only cold silence on behalf of the player whose back she rode to the 2012 NCAA championship at Baylor, found it in her small heart to offer a few words about Griner, sanctimonious and forced as they were. And of course Griner’s wife, Cherelle, who attended Thursday’s announcement with Biden and Vice President Harris, dressed in red and had joy all over her face even as she recognized the Whelan family and the plight of others whose hopes of a reunion with their loved ones remain unfulfilled.

Sports world reacts to Brittney Griner’s release: ‘BG is free’

“We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing, tremendously, their loved ones,” Cherelle Griner said. “[Thursday] is just a happy day for me and my family, so I’m going to smile right now.”

Thankfully, Griner is free, but so far we have heard only the surface level of what a ­6-foot-9 Black queer woman faced in a Russian penal colony. So it might be wise to brace ourselves for when Griner reveals everything that happened to her behind those walls.

But as she takes all the time she needs to carefully navigate into a future that looks so unclear, she also will discover that she may never be able to re-create her past. More people and groups will put claims on her time and her attention. Basketball fans and media outlets will care about her first practice, her first game, her first shot, if they ever come. Advocates will ask for her voice and her celebrity for their social and political platforms. Critics will search for evidence of her ingratitude.

Her life is now a feather in the cap of the Biden administration. It is daily content for any screaming head who needs something new to complain about “the libs.” It might even be a story sold to the publishing house or production company that bids the most money.

She is coming home with immensely more freedom than she had last week and yet less freedom than she enjoyed last year. In her new life and identity, part of her seems destined to remain confined inside other people’s agendas.