Brittney Griner: Woman Without a Country?

By Cory Franklin

July 17, 2022

In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, The Atlantic published a fictional short story by Edward Everett Hale titled The Man Without a Country. As a paean to patriotism and a tribute to national solidarity, the story incorporated many historical facts about mid-19th century America. A staple in American classrooms for decades, the short story, like so many time-honored works of literature, has fallen out of favor and is basically unknown to today’s students.

The Man Without a Country is the story of Philip Nolan, an American Army officer who becomes a confederate of Aaron Burr in an 1807 plot to overthrow the US government. (Although Nolan is a made-up character, the treason plot headed by Burr actually occurred.) Nolan is captured, put on trial, and convicted of treason. (In real life, Burr was exonerated.) During his sentencing, Nolan explodes in the courtroom and shouts to the assembled crowd, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of her again!”

As punishment for the outburst, the magistrate grants Nolan his wish, sentencing him to spend the rest of his life aboard Navy warships, unable to ever set foot in the country again. In addition, the crew of every warship he is transferred to is warned never to mention the United States to Nolan and to omit any mention of America in the newspapers and books provided to him. He is shunned instantly every time he inquires about the United States. For the next 55 years Philip Nolan literally becomes a man without a country.

Comes now Brittney Griner and the U.S. has a woman without a country. Ms. Griner, one of the top players in the WNBA, a seven-time All Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been in a Russian prison for the last five months. While traveling in Russia, she was arrested at a Moscow airport for transporting in her luggage a vape cartridge containing hashish oil. She recently pled guilty and now faces a possible sentence of up to 10 years in a Russian penal colony.

Ms. Griner’s situation has at least a passing parallel to that of Philip Nolan.

In 2019, she voiced the opinion that the WNBA should stop playing the national anthem before games and she adamantly remained in the locker room while it was performed.

She told the Arizona Republic, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season. I think we should take that much of a stand.”

Ms.  Griner maintained that she was not disrespecting the country, although an outside observer might be excused for being skeptical about her showing at least some animus toward America. She criticized the U.S. as somewhere “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.”

Her NBA counterpart, LeBron James, echoed a similar sentiment when he pointed out that Griner has been detained in Russia for “over 110 days,” and asked, “Now how can she feel like America has her back. I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America. (LeBron quickly walked back his remarks.)

But now that Griner is imprisoned in Russia, with little hope of immediate release, her bitter words take on a new meaning.

There is evidence suggesting that Ms. Griner is a pawn in a larger political game, with the Russians holding her as a bargaining chip to be used in negotiating the release of a Russian imprisoned here in the U.S.

Given that she has pled guilty to the drug charge, political intervention may be her best chance to avoid a long prison sentence. So far, the State Department has done little to intervene and appeals to the Biden administration to influence a prisoner swap have proven fruitless.

In The Man Without a Country, as Philip Nolan lays dying after 55 years at sea, he realizes the full measure of what he has lost. He begs the officer overseeing the final days of his captivity to describe America. The officer takes pity on him and recounts the history of America for the five decades that Nolan missed. (The officer includes a story of slaves being freed although out of pity he omits details of the Civil War, not wanting to rehash the issue of treason against the country.)

After hearing about the America, that he never knew, Nolan surprises the officer by showing him a shrine he has created to the United States in his room over the years, including a flag, a picture of George Washington, a bald eagle, and an old map of the United States, showing old territories that, unbeknown to him, had become states. Nolan tells the officer that he does indeed have a country and shows him a prayer book, that, long ago, US authorities failed to confiscate. It contained a special prayer for America.

Upon Nolan’s death, the officer discovers an epitaph of remorse that the prisoner had written for himself:

“In memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”

A Russian prison is no place for Brittney Griner to spend 10 years of her life. I hope the Biden administration can work out a deal so she can return to the United States. And I also hope someone in the State Department gives her a copy of A Man Without a Country to read on the plane ride home.

Maybe the first thing she hears on the tarmac as she debarks from the plane will be the Star-Spangled Banner that she adamantly did not want to hear in American sports arenas.

I doubt she will remain in the plane until it is finished playing.

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Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years. An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.

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