Brittney Griner isn’t afraid to #SayHerName.
“It was amazing to be able to go out on the court and wear Breonna Taylor’s name on my back,” the Phoenix Mercury center said. “It definitely meant everything to me, honoring her and trying to still get justice for her.”
People behind the women’s rights hashtag are grateful for the support, and those who know Griner aren’t surprised she’s lending it.
The sports world is at the center of a massive cultural shift, where players, coaches and leagues are speaking out against anti-Black racism and other social injustices, often for the first time. But Griner has been doing this for years.
“BG’s always been one to be a pioneer,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said.
‘It’s sad that we’re still waiting’
Griner was open about her sexuality years before the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across the nation.
She’s talked about bullying and teen suicide.
And while her male peers in the NBA are kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, Griner and her WNBA sisters walked off the court altogether on the first day of the 2020 season.
It’s a provocative move that’s bound to draw scrutiny, even if she insists that she has no desire to disrespect the country and says that her father was a Marine who went on to a 30-year career in law enforcement.
So why does she do it?
Reading her press clippings and watching her interviews through the years leaves the distinct impression that basketball saved BG when she couldn’t save herself, and all she wants to do now is repay that debt by helping those who can’t help themselves.
And in this moment, that’s Breonna Taylor.
“It’s sad that we’re still waiting, her family is still waiting for justice,” Griner said. “I can only imagine how they feel. And my heart goes out to the whole family and everybody that’s been affected by police brutality and hasn’t gotten justice, yet.”
‘How many remember Michelle?’
Taylor, a Black woman, was killed in her Kentucky home, and federal authorities are investigating potential civil rights violations on the part of Louisville police.
One officer involved has been fired. Two others are on administrative leave.
Activists say the involvement of WNBA stars such as Griner will help make sure the case isn’t overlooked.
Taylor died in March, but the massive wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations didn’t pick up until George Floyd died two months later.
It was similar to 2014.
The death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that year led to protests across the nation, but “how many people,” asked Kimberle Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, “remember Michelle Cusseaux?”
Cusseaux was killed by police in Phoenix, just days after Brown. When the case failed to gain traction, Cusseaux’s mother, Fran Garrett, took her daughter’s casket to City Hall, sparking the #SayHerName movement, Crenshaw said.
“#SayHerName simply says, recognize that Black women are also victims of anti-Black police violence,” Crenshaw said. “Recognize that their families don’t grieve any less for them … their lost lives are no less of an injustice.”
Crenshaw’s AAFP, a social justice think tank, is working with the WNBA and the league’s labor union to educate players, amplify their messages and help them work toward change.
It’s led to the Breonna Taylor patches on uniforms and opportunities for players to hear from Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, Stacey Abrams and others on issues from police reform to voting rights.
Griner hasn’t hesitated to take her message public.
“Get out and vote!” she said, unprompted at the end of a recent media session. “Get out and vote! Make a difference, dammit! Not just for the president! Get out and vote! Do it! Make a change!”
‘She’s comfortable being first’
Angela Hughey, president of ONE Community, a Phoenix-based coalition of businesses and organizations that support diversity, inclusion and equality, has worked with Griner for years.
“She’s a natural-born leader, who’s comfortable being uncomfortable,” Hughey said. “She’s comfortable being first.”
Throughout her career, Griner has made it a mission to be the example she wished she had as youngster. She’s talked about how basketball gave her an identity during a difficult time. And she’s made outreach to homeless people and LGBTQ+ youth a priority since her rookie season.
But she’s also raised money for COVID-19 relief and Arizona animal shelters.
Now, she’s drawing attention to activists seeking change in the name of Breonna Taylor, calling for the prosecution of officers involved in her death and support for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, in his bid to outlaw no-knock police warrants.
It’s not new to BG, even if it is to everybody else.
It’s just who she is.
“When it’s genuine, you can’t really hide it,” Mercury guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “She’s a just genuine good and humble person and player.”
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