Brittney Griner Saved My Life. Please Join Me in the Fight for Hers | Opinion

"I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here."

Her face crestfallen and twitching with emotion, Brittney Griner on Thursday issued this final plea for leniency inside the "defendant's cage" of a courtroom in Khimki, Russia. Griner was facing a maximum of 10 years in a Russian prison for bringing vape cartridges containing hashish oil through Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17. Griner's legal team presented evidence that Griner had a prescription for cannabis to help manage the pain of chronic injury. Sitting behind the bars of a cell with a ceiling too low for her six-foot-nine frame and too narrow for her to stretch out her seven-foot-four wingspan, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and women's basketball champion in the WNBA, the Russian league, and EuroLeague Women apologized to the court for her "honest mistake." The judge ordered her to nine years in a Russian penal colony, and handed her a fine amounting to $16,400 U.S. dollars.

Knowing that Russia has a 99 percent conviction rate, that its legal system hands harsher sentences to non-Russians, and that the trial's conclusion was a necessary next step for hostage exchange negotiations to proceed in earnest between the two countries did not make the nine-year prison sentence any easier to digest. Seeing Griner in that cell, playing the role of captive animal, was gut-wrenching for those who love and admire her, as a friend, family member, teammate, spouse, or fan.

For me, she was perhaps even more than that.

Griner bravely came out as gay in the days leading to the 2013 WNBA Draft, before signing her first contract to play basketball professionally. The news rose to the top of the SportsCenter ticker and my father saw it while getting a haircut in a South Carolina barbershop. The other old men inside that barbershop had only hateful things to say about Griner, but my father, a retired Sgt. Major in the U.S. Army who served in Vietnam (like Griner's dad), scolded them for not behaving with the wisdom and grace expected of a community's elders.

My father rarely called; I always called him. But he called to ask if I'd seen the Griner news, and to tell me about the barbershop incident.

"If she was my daughter, I would love her more," my dad said.

TOPSHOT - US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, waits for the verdict inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. - A Russian court found Griner guilty of smuggling and storing narcotics after prosecutors requested a sentence of nine and a half years in jail for the athlete. EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

They were stunning words from a man who raised his family in the Bible Belt, taught my sisters and me that homosexuality is a sin, and in his active years referred to some of his subordinates in homophobic slurs. This upbringing meant that I did not celebrate my first kiss (yes, with a girl) but carried it as a shameful secret. I threw myself into academics and extracurricular activities to make sure I was too busy to date. I ended up living a life so stunted and aggrieved that it no longer felt worth living.

My dad's call interrupted me counting the pills which I'd planned to use to end my suffering. He demonstrated the capacity for change.

He'd loved watching Griner play since she was a freshman at Baylor, and after she came out, he did not stop liking her as an athlete, and seemed to develop even more respect for her as a person, which paved the way for me to come out to my family.

I had the date, April 29, 2013, tattooed on my left arm to ensure I would never forget how close I came to giving up a life which had not yet begun to fulfill its potential. A life which saw me trade in my professor's lectern for a journalist's pen with hopes of changing the landscape of reporting on women's basketball, which had been sparse and averse to addressing societal issues that kept the WNBA culturally sidelined rather than front and center in the public consciousness.

In 2020, I landed a book deal to write about the complex history of the WNBA. Last year my partner, who I met through my writing, proposed in a manner true to who we are—at Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino before a Connecticut Sun game—and we are now engaged.

Brittney GrinerWasserman Media Group

All the good things I have in my life arrived after April 2013, when Griner kicked down the closet walls and my father displayed compassion for LGBTQ individuals. Had those events not transpired, I would not exist in the world.

When I learned on March 5 that Griner had been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, silence was not an option for me. After all, she had saved my life.

"I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here," Griner told the Russian court.

I am one of many who will not rest until we have ensured that it does not end here for Brittney Griner.

Tamryn Spruill covers women's basketball from an intersectional perspective. She is writing her first book about the WNBA, for ABRAMS Books and is the winner of the LA Press Club's 2020 Southern California Journalism Award for Best Sports Commentary, Print/Online for "Critical Assist". Spruill started the viral Change.org petition to bring Brittney Griner back home in March 2022.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.