Brittney Griner is off her knees and taking a stand for the national anthem

Brittney Griner made her long-awaited return to a basketball court last Friday in Phoenix. The song that was played before the game didn’t sound quite the same.

“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” Griner said. “It’s like when you go for the Olympics. You’re sitting there, about to get gold put on your neck. The flags are going up and the anthem is playing. It just hits different.”

Yeah, nine months in a Russian prison will do that to a person.

It was Griner’s first game since authorities at a Moscow airport found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The WNBA star may well have planned on using them to help cope with another winter of moonlighting for UMMC Yekaterinburg.

Or, Vladimir Putin may well have had the stash, wanting to turn Griner into a negotiating pawn. The Russian judicial system is not exactly set up to stop such a ploy.

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Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. The U.S. eventually traded her for Viktor Bout, aka the “Merchant of Death.”

Swapping a basketball player for the world’s most notorious arms dealer made the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth seem pretty innocuous. But it’s good when any American is freed from such a fix.

Even one who hasn’t been too keen on America.Griner was one of sports’ more outspoken social justice warriors in the long, hot summer of 2020. As protests raged, taking a knee during the national anthem was the standard calling card.

Griner took it a step further, saying she didn’t want to be in the same room where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played.

“I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” she told the Arizona Republic. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there. I feel like more are going to probably do the same thing.”

When Griner did just the opposite last week, it prompted a hearty “I told you so” from a lot of people. No, she didn’t burn her old Black Lives Matter T-shirt and offer the full-throated mea culpa. But her words indicated she’d learned not to hate America.

Griner remains the same person protesting America's flaws

To which Griner’s defenders say, she hasn’t actually changed.

She never hated America. As with the other kneelers, Griner wanted to protest America’s flaws and make it a better country.

That conflict was roiling sports long before anyone heard of George Floyd, of course. One side hears the anthem and thinks of freedom and fallen soldiers. The other hears oppression and police brutality.

Has Griner changed her tune?

In the moral panic of 2020, it was easy to condemn the United States for its past sins and present shortcomings. To conscientiously take a knee and look away as federal buildings were torched and thousands of small businesses – many minority-owned – were destroyed.

Silence is violence, at least according to BLM. And I can’t recall Griner asking protesters to at least think twice before tearing down statues of abolitionists.

Then she was cast into another reality, one that billions of people live every day. One where there is no rule of law or presumption of innocence. One where protesting against the government is a ticket to a torture chamber.

Then, as LeBron James was wondering why Griner would “want to go back to America” as it failed to get her release, the US gave up a mass killer to bring Griner home.

She returned to a country that believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe she realized the dusty old men who came up with those ideas should not be reflexively torn down.

Maybe she realized there are a lot more reasons to stand than kneel for the national anthem.

In summation: “It hits different.”

I don’t know what to read into Griner’s comments. I do know that actions speak louder than words.

Before, she did not even want to hear the national anthem.

Now it sounds like music to her ears.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: WNBA star Brittney Griner standing and listening to national anthem