Brittney Griner Finds Gratitude for America

Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on June 19, 2023.

What will it take for other young Americans to learn the same?

Brittney Griner has been on quite a journey. For much of her life, she was known primarily as a basketball player in the WNBA. Like many athletes, she became vocal about justice issues and used her platform to speak her mind, including protesting the national anthem. Unlike some athletes who would kneel during the national anthem, she made a point to be absent every time America was honored.

In a 2020 interview she said, “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the (WNBA) continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there.” She later added, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season.”

Sadly, Brittney Griner is not the only young American who has been unenthusiastic about her country. According to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Gen Z adults (ages 18-25) say they are "proud" to live in the United States. This is the lowest percentage of any American generation. By comparison, 36 percent of Millennials (ages 26-41) are “proud” to live in the USA.

It’s a real problem when the supermajority of your country under the age of 40 takes no pride in their nation. It is also ironic. The combination of freedom and prosperity Americans enjoy has created the highest standard of living ever enjoyed by any nation in the history of the world. No one has ever had it better than we do, yet the beneficiaries of this inheritance seem to be more disgusted than grateful.

At least for Brittney Griner, something changed. On Feb. 17, 2022, she was detained in Russia after customs officials found vape cartridges in her luggage. She was arrested and charged with drug smuggling. She was sentenced to nine years in prison after a conviction in a closed court with no jury. She spent ten months in a Russian prison before President Biden negotiated her release.

Her experience in Russia seems to have made an impact on how she feels about America. The WNBA season recently began and Brittney Griner is standing for the national anthem for the first time in years, claiming?that the Star Spangled Banner “definitely hit different” this time around. I think there’s a lesson here for everyone.

The fact is, our country is imperfect. It was imperfect at its founding, is imperfect now, and will be imperfect as long as it endures. But our fixation on the things that should be improved to the neglect of what has gone spectacularly well has created an environment where Americans have no appreciation for one of their greatest gifts. For all the legitimate concerns people have about America’s justice system, ten months in the Russian “justice” system may have helped Brittney Griner appreciate that at least America is trying.

It’s not hard to create a false impression. We see it every campaign season as negative ads play darkened images and sinister music while sharing partially true but out of context facts about the target of the ad. We could create a montage of thousands of missed shots by Michael Jordan and convince the ignorant he was one of the worst basketball players ever to live. After all, look at all those misses. What a loser.

In many ways, America has been running a non-stop negative ad campaign against itself for decades by highlighting all the mistakes and shaming anyone who dares mention the incredible, unprecedented, incomparable successes. And now we have a nation of young people who effectively think Michael Jordan was terrible at basketball because all they know about him is that he missed a lot of shots. Fortunately, Brittney Griner now knows better. Hopefully, we’ll find a way to help the rest of America’s young people learn the same lesson without spending ten months in a Russian prison.