Dehumanization Narratives: Media Coverage of Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

Megan Madeira, MALD 2024, wrote a poignant media analysis piece for the fall 2022 section of P214: Gender Theory and Praxis.

“’We are BG’ should be a viral rallying cry, but it isn’t – and why? Is it misogyny? Racism? Homophobia? The unholy trifecta?” 

— Roxanne Gay

On February 17, 2022, American professional athlete Brittney Griner was arrested and detained on drug charges in Russia. Griner’s arrest occurred just days before the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, which has spurred a humanitarian crisis, escalated great power competition between Russia and the United States, dominated international media headlines, and disrupted global supply chains. Further intensifying the situation, Brittney Griner is no ordinary athlete. As a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) champion, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the US, she is one of the greatest professional women’s basketball players of all time. On August 4, 2022, a Russian court found Griner guilty, harshly sentencing her to nine years in a penal colony. In November 2022, Griner was sent to the remote Mordovian penal colony to begin serving her sentence. Prisons in Mordovia are notorious for their inhumane conditions, including overcrowding, sleep deprivation, hard labor, and violence against prisoners.i  On December 8, 2022, she was released by Russia in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout after spending ten months in detention.  

Despite the harrowing circumstances of Griner’s case, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, coverage of Griner’s detention in the American media has been marked by her erasure and dehumanization. American media typically prioritizes coverage of persons who are white, cisgender, heterosexual and – frequently – men. These are privileges Griner does not enjoy, leaving her structurally vulnerable and providing the basis for her plight. The scope of this paper primarily assesses conservative American media depictions of Griner’s detention, which is one enclave of American media and not representative of all American media.  

An institutional and individual-level analysis provides important context to American media coverage of Griner’s detention. At the institutional level, Brittney Griner’s presence in Russia is linked to gendered economic inequality and the lack of visibility and resources dedicated to these issues. At the outset, Brittney Griner was travelling to Russia because she plays in Russia’s premier league. Roughly half of WNBA players supplement their income by playing overseas during the WNBA off-season, despite the additional physical strain inflicted on professional athlete’s bodies by playing year-round.ii This, in large part, is enforced by the WNBA’s salary cap, which stands at $228,000.iii In stark contrast, the average salary for an NBA player is $7.3 million and the top ten highest salaries for NBA players are above $39 million a year.iv The WNBA has historically been criticized for not investing enough in its marketing, creating limited media exposure for WNBA players that contributes to this pay gap.v  

At the individual level, an intersectional approach will consider Brittney Griner’s identity. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, considers how multiple dimensions of identity combine and compound to create different experiences of inclusion or marginalization, particularly for women of Griner self-identifies as a strong Black lesbian woman. Throughout her entire life, she has transgressed traditional expectations of women and femininity. Growing up, she was bullied for having a masculine physique, to the point where she contemplated suicide as a child. Her father was unaccepting when she came out as a lesbian, driving Griner to live with one of her coaches during her senior year of high school.vii Standing at 6’9”, she refuses to wear dresses, preferring bowties as formalwear instead.viii Throughout her collegiate and professional career, her identity has been pathologized, with accusations that she is a man and calls for her to undergo sex tests.ix Jamie Hagen furthers Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality by articulating that an “individual’s multiple social identities compound the risk of violence against them.”x From her personal life to her public life, the intersections of Griner’s identity defy gendered expectations and norms, compound the risk of violence against her, and contribute to how the media approached coverage of her detention. 

In American sports news outlets, Griner’s detention has been marked by erasure and inattention. While this may have initially been an intentional strategy from the Biden administration to maintain leverage over their Russian counterparts, the lack of media attention was disproportionate given Griner’s professional merits and the association with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 48 hours after news of her arrest, there was no mention of Griner on ESPN, CBS, or Sports Illustrated.xi Sports journalist Tamryn Spruill emphasized a gendered double standard at play, stating, “If this was an NBA player of her caliber… this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world.”xii Aileen Gallagher, an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse, also articulated a racial double standard, stating that this lack of coverage is the inverse of the “missing-white-woman syndrome”, a term coined by Gwen Ifill to describe the phenomenon of significant news attention when a white American woman is missing that is not afforded to women of color.xiii This erasure and inattention to Griner’s plight perpetuates the invisibility of those who are racial, sexual, and gender minorities.  

On the other side of the same coin, media coverage from American conservative outlets has deployed narratives of dehumanization. This manifested through two lines of justification: Griner’s drug use and her Black Lives Matter activism. First, conservative media argued that Griner’s drug use and possession justified her detention, rhetoric that evokes a legacy of the war on drugs and structural racism in the US. On the Clay Travis and Buck Sexton show, Former President Donald Trump called Griner a “potentially spoiled person” who went to Russia “loaded up on drugs”.xiv In an article published in The American Conservative, Senior Editor Rod Dreher published an article tellingly entitled, “Is Brittney Griner Worth it?”. Dreher went on to argue, “The State Department has declared Griner to have been “wrongfully detained” — this, even though she admitted to breaking Russian law, and the evidence was found in her bags as she arrived in Moscow. What kind of idiot tries to smuggle drugs into Russia?.”xv This criticism is outsized considering that Griner was found with less than a gram of medically prescribed hashish oil, roughly the weight of a small raisin,xvi and given Russia’s own authorization of cannabis by fans during the 2018 World Cup.xvii The arguments from American conservative outlets that Griner’s drug use warrants her sentencing insinuates that Griner is responsible for her own victimization. Victim-blaming is a phenomenon that is often predicated upon racism and sexism. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how the margin of error is smaller for Black Americans vis-à-vis criminal injustice.xviii Kimberle Crenshaw’s work considers how victims that are women of color are not humanized by the media.xix Mikki Kendall explores how ‘respectability narratives’ have been used to justify inhumane treatment of women of color.xx This victim-blaming further dehumanizes Brittney Griner in American conservative media.  

In the aforementioned piece by Rod Dreher, he responds to a reader’s rhetorical question regarding why the Biden administration would consider exchanging Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for a “degenerate”, referencing Griner’s drug possession. Responding with explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia, Dreher responds that, “She is a celebrity. That makes her the Most Valuable Player in American life. That, and she is a person of color, and a lesbian.”xxi Dreher’s response does not consider threats towards Griner’s safety as an LGBTQ person in Russia, which is known for its persecution of LGBTQ citizens. Griner’s LGBTQ identity adds another layer to her dehumanization, which is deployed to “place sexual minorities outside the purview of formal protection.”xxii 

Conservative media outlets also cite Griner’s Black Lives Matter activism as evidence that she is unpatriotic and therefore does not deserve protection from the Biden administration. In 2020, Griner refused to be on the basketball court during the national anthem to protest the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers. Griner told the Arizona Republic, “We should not play the national anthem during our season. I think we should take that much of a stand. I do not mean that in any disrespect to our country.”xxiii Despite the latter sentence in her statement, conservative American media cited Griner’s activism to discredit her as unpatriotic, enforcing an idea that American citizenship does not allow one to criticize structural racism nor advocate for the safety of Black women. In an opinion piece for The American Conservative, Micah P. Veillon writes with overt racism, “Perhaps Griner’s time in Russian jail will inspire a newfound gratitude for our government, our national anthem, and our Anglo-American heritage, which provide her the freedoms she now no longer enjoys.”xxiv After Griner’s sentencing was publicized, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren took to Twitter to write, “On the bright side, B Griner will not have to endure our National Anthem for 9 whole years! What a win for her!”xxv This tweet has more than 39,700 likes. A few months later after news broke of Griner’s transfer to a penal colony, Republican cinematographer Errol Webber tweeted a nearly identical message, “I bet Brittney Griner wishes she could belt the U.S. National Anthem at the top of her voice in an American basketball arena right now.”xxvi By painting Griner, a US Olympic Gold Medalist, as unpatriotic and un-American, the conservative media suggests that security should be afforded only to those who do not challenge structural racism in America.  

This coverage of Griner’s sentencing does not happen in a vacuum. From Serena Williams to Castor Semenya to Sha’Carri Richardson to Colin Kaepernick to Lebron James, Black American athletes have been criticized, threatened, and vilified for challenging gender norms, for their antiracist activism, for celebrating their same-sex partners, for cannabis use, and for the intersections of their identities.  

On December 8, 2022, Griner was released from the penal colony in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. While American prisoner releases can be an opportunity for bipartisan celebration, American conservative commentators expressed contempt and outrage over Griner’s release. Conservative criticism once again incited Griner’s identity to argue that she was not worthy of release in exchange for an arms merchant like Viktor Bout and that former Marine Paul Whelan, who is detained in Russia, should have been released in addition to or instead of Griner (despite the Biden administration conveying that Whelan’s release was not on the negotiating table due to Whelan’s designation as an accused spy). Upon news of Griner’s release, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that, “The Biden Admin was apparently worried that their DEI score would go down if they freed an American Marine.”xxvii Tomi Lahren also took to Twitter to comment that Griner was released “over” Whelan, citing that, “It’s not the basketball part, it’s the black and gay part that moved her higher on the priority list.”xxviii 

To unpack Griner’s detention, release, and subsequent media coverage is to unpack the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and economic inequalities in America and dehumanization narratives. Brittney Griner is a self-identified strong Black lesbian woman. She is also inherently and irrefutably a human who deserves the right to personal security, and she deserved to return home.  

End Notes

[i] Sauer, Pjotr. “IK-2 Mordovia: The Harsh, Notorious Penal Colony Holding Brittney Griner.” The Guardian, November 18, 2022, sec. World news.

[ii]  Honderich, Holly. “Brittney Griner: How Can a US Basketball Star Just Vanish?” BBC News, June 15, 2022, sec. US & Canada.

[ii] Pilon, Mary. “Opinion | What Brittney Griner’s Income Says About Women’s Basketball.” The New York Times, September 2, 2022, sec. Opinion.

[iv] Mayorquin, Orlando. “Who Is the NBA’s Highest-Paid Player? Steph Curry, Lebron James Lead the Pack of Top Earners.” USA TODAY. Accessed October 19, 2022.

[v] Pilon, Mary. “Opinion | What Brittney Griner’s Income Says About Women’s Basketball.” The New York Times, September 2, 2022, sec. Opinion.

[vi] Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241.

[vii] Fagan, Kate. “Owning The Middle.” Accessed October 19, 2022.

[viii] Abraham, Laurie. “How Slam-Dunking, Gender-Bending WNBA Rookie Brittney Griner Is Changing the World of Sports.” ELLE, November 4, 2013.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Hagen, Jamie J. “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 92, no. 2 (2016): pg. 314.

[xi] Leitch, Will. “Why Isn’t Brittney Griner the Biggest Sports Story in the Country?” New York Magazine, March 8, 2022.

[xii] Romo, Vanessa. “We’re Not Hearing Much about Jailed WNBA Star Brittney Griner. Could That Be Good?” NPR, March 18, 2022, sec. National.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show. “President Trump to C&B: ‘Our Country Is Going to Hell,’” July 29, 2022.

[xv] Dreher, Rod. “Is Brittney Griner Worth It?” The American Conservative, August 4, 2022.

[xvi] Thomas, Louisa. “Getting Brittney Griner Home.” The New Yorker, September 11, 2022.

[xvii] Gartland, Dan. “World Cup Fans Will Be Allowed to Bring Drugs to Stadiums.” Sports Illustrated. Accessed October 19, 2022.

[xviii] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

[xix] Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): pg. 1261.

[xx] Kendall, Mikki. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 3

[xxi] Dreher, Rod. “Is Brittney Griner Worth It?” The American Conservative, August 4, 2022.

[xxii] Thoreson, Ryan   Richard. “Queering Human Rights: The Yogyakarta Principles and the Norm That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Journal of Human Rights 8, no. 4 (November 17, 2009): pg. 330.

[xxiii] Metcalfe, Jeff. “Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner Will Not Be on Court for National Anthem This Season.” Arizona Republic. Accessed October 19, 2022.

[xxiv] Veillon, Micah P. “Lessons for Brittney Griner.” The American Conservative, July 8, 2022.

[xxv] Lahren, Tomi. “Https://Twitter.Com/Tomilahren/Status/1555502525335445506.” Twitter. Accessed October 19, 2022.

[xxvi] Webber, Errol. “Https://Twitter.Com/Errolwebber/Status/1593315219849195520.” Twitter. Accessed November 21, 2022.

[xxvii] Trump Jr., Donald. “Https://Twitter.Com/Donaldjtrumpjr/Status/1600869858689679360.” Twitter. Accessed December 11, 2022.

[xxviii] Lahren, Tomi. “Https://Twitter.Com/Tomilahren/Status/1600982889487028224.” Twitter. Accessed December 11, 2022.