Plaschke: An American is coming home. So why are so many Americans upset Brittney Griner is free?

FILE - Brittney Griner (15) runs up court during women's basketball gold medal game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed by Russia in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout from custody. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

An American who has been wrongfully detained for 10 months in brutal Russian prisons is coming home.

Why are so many other Americans so angry about it?

An American who was given an outrageous nine-year sentence for attempting to enter Russia with minuscule amounts of cannabis oil in vape cartridges is coming home.

Why do so many other Americans wish she wasn’t?

The freeing of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner from her Russian incarceration Thursday in a prisoner swap for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout should have led to a unified nationwide cheer.

She was an American trapped on hostile soil for use as a political pawn, and America freed her by whatever means necessary, and God bless a country that takes care of its own.

Except not everybody feels that way, leading to a national debate conducted under the guise of fairness yet reeking of bias.

Many folks seem actually disappointed that America went out of its way to free a Black, lesbian, tattooed female athlete who has refused to come out of the locker room for the national anthem.

I made this point last summer while Griner was wallowing away in Russian captivity with little buzz surrounding her potential release. I noted to Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard that if Tom Brady were wrongfully detained, America would have been at war.

“If it was LeBron [James] he’d be home, right?” said Nygaard at the time. “It’s a statement about the value of women, it’s a statement about the value of a Black person, it’s a statement about the value of a gay person — all those things. We know it and so that’s what hurts a little more.”

All those statements surfaced again Thursday as what should have been a national cheer dissolved into the usual partisan bickering created by many who felt lost by this win.

Their first question: Why was Brittney Griner bargained into freedom while another high-profile hostage, former Marine Paul Whelan, continues to be wrongfully detained for nearly four years on what are considered bogus charges of spying?

In other words, why did America pick a basketball star over a veteran?

The answer: According to government officials, they didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t Griner or Whelan. It was Griner or nobody.

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” said President Biden in a national address, later adding, “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up, we will never give up.”

America should continue to mourn the fate of Whelan and the many other citizens being wrongfully detained around the world. But that shouldn’t mean one should begrudge the luck of those who come home.

Their second question: Isn’t it an unfair trade to give up someone as dangerously evil as Bout — nicknamed, “The Merchant of Death” — for someone with as scant national appeal as a women’s professional athlete? Even though Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and WNBA champion who commands the court with her 6-foot-9 stature, her impact on this country was minimal. In real-life terms, didn’t the Russian get the far better end of this deal?

Answer: They did. In terms of potential effect on society, this was not a fair trade. But these are never fair trades. This was never about a fair trade. This was about bringing an American home, period.

“Negotiations for the release of wrongful detainees are often very difficult, that’s just the reality… immediate results can feel unfair or arbitrary,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, adding, “The president felt a moral obligation to bring Brittney home…we're not going to apologize for that.”

The third question is about perceived patriotism. Amid the racial unrest in 2020, Griner said, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season. I think we should take that much of a stand.”

Some people think that because she wouldn’t stand for her country, her country shouldn’t stand for her. That also doesn’t make sense. By expressing her freedom of speech, Griner, the daughter of a Vietnam War vet, was celebrating America, not denigrating it. And since when is American citizenship conditional on pro-American behavior?

From the moment Griner was released early Thursday morning, the debate raged, leading to the thought that the Russians released Griner for the sole purpose of causing the deep cultural split that has ensued. There is nothing the Russians would like better, the belief goes, than to watch Americans turn on each other.

Well, Vladimir Putin is not going to win this one. Brittney Griner is home and, despite that controversy that it caused, the arguments cannot compare with the empowerment that it wrought.

There is a belief that Griner’s road to release did not begin until strong national voices finally spoke up for her, and how about that? A country that once wouldn’t treat women’s athletes equally without a law was now rallying around the safety of a controversial female basketball player.

Carly Givens of Phoenix looks at a mural of Brittney Griner in Phoenix on Thursday.
Carly Givens of Phoenix looks at a mural of Brittney Griner in Phoenix on Thursday, hours after it was announced Griner had been freed in a prisoner exchange with Russia. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

"It has been a total team effort," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters in discussing Griner's release. "We use that analogy in sports all the time. But we could not have done this without the NBA, without Brittney's agent, lawyers, the whole ecosystem around women's sports.”

On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a wonderful commemoration indeed.

The hearts and hopes of America surely remain with Whelan, who despondently told CNN, “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release … I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

That tempers, but does not diminish, the triumph in the homecoming of an American basketball player who, in the words of Biden, just hit the three-pointer of a lifetime.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home.”

For Brittney Griner, a welcome back.

For America, a standing ovation.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.