Right-wing media attack Brittney Griner as “a black lesbian millionaire athlete who broke the law in a foreign country”

The right’s coverage of Griner has suggested her draconian ordeal in Russia is poetic justice for her stateside activism

Right-wing media outlets have repeatedly targeted WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner following her arrest in Russia in February. Many of the comments have referenced Griner’s stateside activism, including her protests of the WNBA’s decision to play the national anthem at the beginning of every game.  

One of the most egregious attack pieces came from the editors of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, who wrote an editorial headlined: “No Special Treatment for Brittney Griner.”

Washington Free Beacon headline

Citation From the Washington Free Beacon, on July 8, 2022.

The Beacon published the editorial one day after Griner pleaded guilty to inadvertently carrying a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage as she was leaving Russia.

It's a sad story, but Griner is hardly the political prisoner that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have made her out to be. And under no circumstances should the Democratic Party's identity politics allow a black lesbian millionaire athlete who broke the law in a foreign country to receive preferential treatment—as she already is receiving—over genuinely innocent hostages long left to rot in foreign prisons. Even if one were to leave aside the fact, which we simply cannot, that Griner clamored for the removal of the national anthem from WNBA games.

The editorial continued by criticizing Biden’s call to Griner’s wife, in which he also mentioned Paul Whelan, another U.S. national being held captive in Russia. The editors wrote that Whelan is being held on “trumped-up espionage charges” and that he “insists he's innocent,” a position they contrast with Griner’s. 

“Whatever one thinks of Russia's draconian drug laws, Griner has quite plausibly admitted her guilt, so it's unclear why Biden and Harris have made Griner's ordeal a higher priority than Whelan's,” they wrote. The obvious and intended insinuation is that Griner is getting special treatment from the administration because she is a “a black lesbian millionaire.” 

The editors then write with barely hidden schadenfreude that Griner “is not exactly an American patriot” before referencing her opposition to the playing of the national anthem to open WNBA games following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. 

Many other right-wing outlets and figures followed a similar template. Breitbart argued that a letter Griner wrote to Biden referencing the Fourth of July was hypocritical because “it appears she did not have the same patriotic feelings for the county back in 2020 when she became a loud and proud protester against the country in the WNBA.”

Also in the context of Griner’s racial justice protests, far-right conspiracist junk site The Gateway Pundit wrote that she “has a sorted [sordid] past of her loyalty to the United States.”

PJ Media claimed Whelan would have received more attention from the White House if “he had been a black lesbian sports superstar.” (CNN reported over the weekend that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is expected to travel to Russia in the coming weeks to attempt to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.)

The Epoch Times’ The Larry Elder Show posted a clip on YouTube titled “Does WNBA Star Appreciate American Freedom More From Russian Prison?” In the preview summary, the Epoch Times wrote, “Hopefully, Griner appreciates her freedom back in America a little bit more than before.” 

Right-wing figures weighed in on social media as well.

Donald Trump Jr. implied that Black people can avoid jail or prison in the United States by playing “the race card,” an incoherent argument even by his low standards.

Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of the virulently anti-Muslim group Act for America, tweeted:

Conservative filmmaker Errol Webber and Washington Times columnist Tim Young each claimed to be highlighting Griner’s supposedly hypocritical stance of opposing state violence in the United States while also asking the country to rescue her from Russia. Griner’s position is in fact entirely consistent. Protesting police violence in the United States is not at all at odds with attempting to minimize the police and prison violence she could be subjected to in Russia.

As Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon argued at NBC Think, both Russia and conservatives in the United States are attempting to use Griner as a pawn. When conservatives haven’t attacked her directly, they’ve used her situation to criticize Biden by arguing Trump would have gotten her back already. Russia almost certainly wants to exchange Griner for a notorious Russian arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., or at the very least use her to exert pressure on the United States more broadly, possibly related to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Griner now finds herself at the center of a geopolitical conflict that intersects with racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and endemic corruption following Russia’s neoliberal turn after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To suggest that she is somehow getting special treatment is absurd.