Brittney Griner wants to talk about more than basketball.
In a news conference earlier this month, the Phoenix Mercury star proposed a call to action to those covering the WNBA during its 22-game shortened season, which tips off Saturday.
“We don’t get asked enough what’s going on in our communities, and I think that’s a shame,” said Griner, a six-time All-Star. “Yeah, we’re here to play basketball. But basketball doesn’t mean anything in a world where we can’t just live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over.
“I just want to challenge everybody to do more. Write the story that might be tough. Take a chance. Ask a question that’s tough. Don’t let it be silent.”
This season, Griner and every other player who takes the court will do so with an additional name on the back of their jerseys: Breonna Taylor.
Taylor, a 26-year old emergency technician, was fatally shot in her home on March 13 by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers who were executing a search warrant. None of the three officers involved in the shooting have been arrested or charged in the shooting.
Taylor’s death, along with the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, have ignited a social justice movement across the country. The names of Floyd and Taylor, who were both killed by police officers, have permeated the discourse within many sports leagues. In recent weeks, many athletes have used their platforms to bring awareness and call for justice for Taylor. As the WNBA, which has dedicated its season to social justice, readies for its season, Griner wants to do the same.
“When you do something that is selfless and you’re doing something for an actual cause, that’s bigger than anything you can do on a basketball court or any accolade you can get in your career,” Griner said.
Griner continued her message Friday in an interview with The Undefeated, where she opens up about what it means to wear Taylor’s name on her jersey; discussions with her father, a former member of law enforcement; and which social justice initiatives she’d like to see come out of the bubble.
What does it mean to wear Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of your jersey this season?
It means a lot.
A black woman was fatally shot by a metro police department officer … and nothing is being done. It was a trend on social media after – I hate to say that, but I feel like so many people got into a trend of just posting just to post but not really doing anything about it. For me to wear her name on my jersey, on my back, the whole season. I remember they asked if we wanted it to be a one-time game thing or a whole season, and I was like, I’m wearing mine on the back of my jersey the whole season. Luckily, I think that’s what everyone is doing now.
Every step I take, every time there is a camera on my back – someone who is living under a rock who doesn’t see or doesn’t know they’re going to see it, they’re going to Google it, they’re going to look into it. Hopefully, that makes more people aware of how unjust it is. It’s been countless days since anything has been done. We’re still fighting for justice for her. As a Black woman, I feel like we get the double effect. I say that as a woman who has been discriminated against already in society, and being a black woman at that, for being double-discriminated against. I’m tired of it. I’m really tired of it.
What was your reaction to learning about the case of Breonna Taylor?
For me, anytime that a law officer was not doing their job – they’re supposed to protect and serve first. I feel like it’s too many times that cops are feeling like they’re a judge, jury and executioner. …
There were so many people that could have stopped this. So many high-ranking officials that can do something about it till this day right now. Nothing is being done except for the people who are still saying her name every single day, still bringing it up every single day. We’re not going to stop.
Have you had conversations with your dad about the state of law enforcement, and how have you grappled with this movement while having family in law enforcement?
Me and my dad have definitely talked before. I wanted to go into law enforcement before basketball. If I wasn’t playing basketball, I would have been a law enforcement officer, first responder, something where I could protect or save somebody’s life. I planned on going to high school, military, law enforcement. I got into basketball late. That was my path.
When I told him I wanted to be a cop when I was young, he was like, ‘No, it’s not the same anymore, it’s not how it used to be. Times have changed. It’s not a brotherhood. It’s not how it used to be anymore.’ He really didn’t want me to do that at all, he was against it.
I hate that my dad thinks that, because my dad was a really good cop. I remember waking up, seeing him off every day and waiting for him to come home knowing he was out there doing the right thing. I know he loved it and I hate the fact that it’s changed and he has a bad view on it. I hate that. But that’s where we are now. …
Being a law enforcement officer is such a hard job. It’s not for everybody. More needs to be put into it.
I don’t think funding needs to be taken away from law enforcement. Let me say that now. I don’t want to take police funding away, I want to put more into it, honestly. They need more resources, they need longer academies. They need more psych evals. It’s a lot that goes into it. Maybe the funds need to be allocated in a different way. That’s a big argument on the other side. ‘Oh, they just want to take away funds.’ Listen to my argument, I don’t want to take funds away. There needs to be more maybe, and focused on different areas.
Do you know anyone who has been mistreated by police or have you experienced it personally?
I’ve definitely had friends who have been subjected to illegal searches of their houses and their cars or have been talked to rudely by police officers.
I had an incident when I came to Phoenix. I got pulled over by a cop. I was in the wrong, I was speeding – I wasn’t paying attention. When I pulled over, I pulled over in the HOV lane, which you’re not supposed to and I know that – I panicked. I saw him behind me and I just pulled over quickly. When he came to my window I got judged on my size and on my voice. He thought I was a guy and was very rude. It could have escalated.
My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, we just talked about this though it’s years and years later about how scared she was to sit in that car because she saw how irritated I was getting and she didn’t want me to say something or allude to him that I was being aggressive and that whole situation could have changed. I was getting upset about how he was treating me, calling me ‘buddy,’ and ‘pal’ and ‘dude.’ He finally sees my ID, looks at it and looks at me, looks at it again like it’s a lie and he looks back and says, ‘ma’am,’ and his whole demeanor changes. I could have been wrongfully thought of as a guy. I could have reached for my phone and then shot easily.
You could say, ‘Oh, maybe that’s a stretch, Brittney.’ No, it’s not a stretch. We see it every day. People go into somebody’s house that they’re not even supposed to be in and they shoot and kill them in their living room. I could have easily been that same person on the freeway, on the side of 35 in Arizona. That’s scary. Every day I leave this house, I’m always wrongfully accused of being a guy and I can wrongfully be accused of being aggressive, too, and that’s a thought that my wife and I have to think about every day.
Did that interaction impact your perception of law enforcement?
I didn’t let that one interaction have that kind of effect on me, but I am more aware now. I’ve always been very respectful. My grandfather was military, my dad was military law enforcement, my godfather, law enforcement. One of my dear friends who I call a sister, she’s a state trooper in Austin, Texas. If I get pulled over, I’m always very ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘no, sir,’ I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m talking them through it because I know how anything can be misconstrued. As long as you have communication and stay calm, things should typically go good. I’m the person if I see a cop three cars behind me at the Chick-fil-A line, I’m telling them whatever they order, it’s on me. I’m still doing it now till this day. I still say thank you to them because there are still good cops out here. We can’t say all cops are bad. That’s like them saying, ‘Oh, well, there was one bad black person, so they’re all bad.’ That makes me no better than them.
Prior to being in the bubble, you were working to raise money for COVID-19 relief and social justice. Do you have plans for future efforts?
I was talking to my wife yesterday about having to make sacrifices to protest, to peaceful protest. A lot of time you have to make the sacrifice of being arrested. There are people that we need to have this happen, but we can’t forget them along the way. Those people that are still locked up, getting bogus charges, still getting discriminated against by the police department for just going out and protesting.
We’re talking about possibly starting a GoFundMe where the proceeds would go towards the people that can’t afford lawyers, that can’t afford the legal fees to fight their cases. There are a lot of people that get stuck with these cases, can’t do anything about it, can’t fight it. Now they have this record, now they’ve lost their job, they have kids that they have to fend for. We’re going to probably start that up pretty soon. That’s something that’s in the works that I want to do. There are so many people that get left behind or are affected that we need for change to happen.
Is there something specific that you would like to see happen within the bubble in regards to social justice?
I hope by the end of the season the WNBA has taken the initiative to put together some panels within the bubble. Maybe it’s via Zoom, or maybe we can get a guest speaker to come in and be social distanced. There needs to be talks, because I know there are WNBA players who have been directly affected, either seeing or having somebody close to them – they have some really good insight and some experiences that we can share, we can grow, we can learn. Can’t learn anything if you stay silent.
With the USA Team in California in 2016, Carmelo Anthony put together an event with different law enforcement officers. We just talked about experiences. We got perspectives from their side, they got perspectives from our side. It was a really powerful thing. Maybe something like that could be organized and thought out. Each WNBA team reaches out to their local law enforcement so we can speak on our views and speak on our concerns and we can hear their side as well, and start a partnership or something. Something has to be done, and I would love to see that transpire before the end of the bubble.
What’s it like to be a part of a league with players that have been a consistent voice in fighting for social justice and social causes?
These are my sisters. We go against each other every day, but it’s a sisterhood as well. To know that your co-worker, your teammate is backing you and you’re all a part of the same goal, the same movement shows a lot about our league and how we can come together collectively. I feel honored and proud to be a part of this league and be a part of this moment with these women.