Their career achievements rival that of anyone else currently in their sport — a championship winner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, seven time All-Star and two time scoring champion. ESPN ranks them as one of the 25 greatest players of all time in their sport. They’re the only player in NCAA history to score both 2,000 points and block 500 shots in their career.
By all standards, this player should be a national icon. You should see them on Wheaties boxes, in Nike commercials, their shoes should be worn on the feet of every aspiring basketball player.
The sad truth, though, is that the average American would not be able to pick them out if they saw them on the street let alone on a basketball court.
Brittney Griner has earned the right to be a topic of conversation with every sports junkie or basketball fan. But, because she’s a woman, her achievements and abilities are regarded as trivial.
And now — as she sits in a Russian jail awaiting a trial on alleged possession of drug charges, potentially facing up to five years in prison — she still doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Her life now hangs in the balance of geopolitical negotiations between nuclear superpowers, her celebrity used as a bargaining chip for eased sanctions by an authoritarian dictator.
Under any other circumstances the foreign arrest of an athlete during wartime, an athlete of this caliber and with this resume, would be treated as a national tragedy.
Imagine if Kawhi Leonard — a current NBA player with a similar resume but who is paid nearly $40 million a year compared to Griner’s $200,000 — was arrested and held overseas.
It would dominate headlines for weeks, there would likely be vigils or ceremonies before every NBA game — you can imagine the president giving a National Address to ease the country’s worries.
But, because our country values the accomplishments of female athletes less than male ones, her struggles are a below-the-fold story, a footnote among other stories.
It’s hard to imagine any other American professional athlete put in this place to begin with. Given the low-wages and small viewership of the WNBA, players like Griner have to travel overseas to play basketball for teams funded by Russian oligarchs.
Griner’s struggles should serve as a wakeup call to American sports fans about the trials and tribulations of professional female athletes. The truth is several wake up calls have been delivered at this point, but they’ve all been met by the equivalent of a snooze button from the national consciousness.
If it didn’t happen after women’s college basketball players were given a weight room for the NCAA tournament that was smaller than most you’d find in an average hotel and didn’t happen after the US Soccer Women’s National Team won championship after championship while still being paid less than their male counterparts — this story must alert the average sports fan to the plight of female athletes.
Female athletes are continually trivialized and scrutinized by the national media. The common refrain from the average white male talking head seems to be that women should just be thankful that men let them play sports and should turn the other cheek to any kind of mistreatment.
While some managed to keep their mouths shut, this summer when Simone Biles had to leave Olympic competition due to a mental health crisis during the games, many labeled her a “quitter” or called her “soft.”
Yet nearly every week some NBA star is sitting out a random regular season game just because they’re tired. James Harden and Joel Embiid, two stars for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, sat out a recent game against the top-seeded Miami Heat just because they didn’t feel like it, but they didn’t face outrage and condemnation for the move. Most didn’t even look twice.
The double standard is as plain as day. For the sports media, male athletes are athletes first, whereas female athletes are women first and athletes second.
While we await further news of Griner’s future, we must rethink our attitudes towards female athletes. Because our indifference and ignorance to them is, at least partially, to blame for this tragedy.