WATSON: The right’s reaction to Brittney Griner release is telling

FILE – Brittney Griner (15) runs up court during the women’s basketball gold medal game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. The return of Brittney Griner to the United States in a dramatic prisoner swap with Russia marked the culmination of a 10-month ordeal that captivated world attention, a saga that landed at the intersection of sports, politics, race and gender identity — and wartime diplomacy. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

It sure didn’t take long for right-wing media figures to criticize the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Griner was released on Dec. 8 by the Russian government as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the merchant of death.” Since the deal was made by the Biden administration, the Right predictably launched a perverse and sinister attack, politically weaponizing her release by employing racist and homophobic language.

Bout had been serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for more than a decade. Griner, who landed on U.S. soil at the end of last week, had been detained in Russia for several months – where she’d gone for a professional basketball job during the U.S. offseason – for accusations of possessing hashish oil. She was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August. She was transferred to a Russian penal colony in early November after her appeal against the conviction was rejected.

Right-wing conservatives have brutally attacked Griner throughout her time in Russian custody, focusing on her identity as a Black, queer woman and targeting her previous protests against racial injustice as unpatriotic. Statements such as “America-hating lesbian pothead” and “Black lesbian millionaire athlete who broke the law in a foreign country” have been levied toward Griner.

Large segments of the Right have continued to attack her, as well as denounce President Biden (without evidence) for supposedly prioritizing her release over Paul Whelan – an ex-Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018 because of spying allegations.

Newsmax host Benny Johnson attacked Griner as a “Black woman, lesbian woman, drug addict, America-hating – woke.”

Fox News host Tucker Carlson baselessly suggested the Biden administration didn’t secure Whelan’s release because he “is a Trump voter and he made the mistake of saying so on social media.” He went on to say Griner “hates the country so much she doesn’t want to hear its anthem. That’s the kind of position that gets you rewarded by Joe Biden.”

Pro-Trump talk radio host Michael Savage purported the same ideas, tweeting, “The choice of Griner over Whelan may reflect the preferences of Biden’s political base. The WNBA star and celebrity is also a black lesbian, who protested the U.S. national anthem. Whelan is a middle-aged white man and a U.S. Marine.”

Right-wing nonsense notwithstanding, the family of Paul Whalen issued a most professionally honest statement to the media and the larger public:

“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

David Whelan expressed his happiness for Griner, but also acknowledged he has major concerns about his brother.

“I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point,” Whelan said in a statement. “It’s clear that the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so, Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”

The fact is Griner has been unapologetic in promoting her platform to speak on issues that impact people of color. In 2020, she was staunchly critical of about the initial lack of investigation being conducted in the death of Breonna Taylor and was very vocal about the murder of George Floyd.

“We should not play the national anthem during our season,” she told the Arizona Republic at the time. “I think we should take that much of a stand. I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country.”

Griner explained that her father had fought in Vietnam and served as a law-enforcement officer for 30 years. “I wanted to be a cop before basketball,” she said. “I do have pride for my country.”

Her comments dripped with pride, candor, patriotism, and honesty. It is evident she is a person who loves her nation, but like many others who criticize it, she wants it to live up to the values of fairness and equality that it supposedly professes for all of its citizens

Sad to say, the same cannot be said of her racist and homophobic right-wing critics.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.

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