The Tragic Truth About Brittney Griner

The following article includes allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Brittney Griner is no stranger to trauma, and she would experience a tragedy on the world stage that very few can imagine. In February 2022, the WNBA star was detained and charged in Russia after customs officers at the Moscow airport found hashish oil in her luggage. In August 2022, she received a nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking, which sparked condemnation from President Joe Biden. In her 2024 memoir, "Coming Home," (via NBC News) Griner accused the Russian government of using her as a political weapon against the U.S. ahead of Vladimir Putin's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

During her detainment, the Phoenix Mercury center slept on a blood-stained mattress and was denied access to toilet paper or soap. "That was the moment where I just felt less than a human," she told ABC News' Robin Roberts. Brittney Griner was freed from the Russian prison in December 2023, when the Putin administration agreed to release her in exchange for the arms dealer Viktor Bout. But Griner's life in prison had repercussions on her mental health well beyond the 10 months she was detained.

After returning home and to the basketball courts, she continued to struggle before taking time off to care for her mental well-being. Griner's life circumstances have long tested her fortitude. Her first marriage collapsed amid a scandal. Her LGBTQ+ identity, height, and body shape made her a target for bullies at school. Growing up, her sexuality was also an issue at home. While Griner found acceptance in basketball and went on to create a healthy marriage, she has endured a lot.

Brittney Griner was bullied as a child

At 6 feet, 8 inches, it's no surprise that Brittney Griner was always taller than her peers. That was hard to navigate as a teenager. In junior high, students often discussed aloud whether they thought she was a boy or a girl, even asking her to turn around so they could check her chest. "It really messed with my head a lot ... I felt like I was on an exhibit, like at a carnival or something, like I'm the freak," Griner said in an interview posted on the Phoenix Mercury website in 2021.

Griner avoids discussing the bullying she suffered in her teenage years because it reopens old wounds. But she put that aside when writing her 2014 memoir, "In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court," because she didn't want her experiences to have been in vain. "I felt that if I did it, maybe I could help someone else who was in school right now and having a very hard time," she told ESPN ahead of its release. 

Griner stressed the key role teachers and other school staff can play in the fight against bullying. She often wonders why the adults at her school allowed the kids to openly bully her. Despite her disappointment, her advice to teenagers who are victims of bullying is to turn to a trustworthy adult. "I kept to myself and bottled it all up, and that wasn't good," she told the Houston Chronicle in 2014.

Brittney Griner's father didn't accept her sexuality

In ninth grade, Brittney Griner found basketball and the confidence to come out to her parents, Sandra and Raymond Griner. Her mother immediately accepted it. But her father, a policeman and Vietnam veteran, was a different story. "My dad always told me to just be who I was, but I don't think he knew exactly how I took it," Brittney told Elle in 2013. Raymond said he refused to raise a lesbian daughter and told Brittney to leave the house.

During her senior year, she lived with an assistant coach for six weeks, according to the Houston Chronicle report. She returned home, but her relationship with her father became increasingly strained. It broke Brittney's heart. Growing up, her father was her world. "I was a daddy's girl," she told Sports Illustrated Kids in 2013, describing how Raymond instilled in her a strong sense of independence. He even taught her the basics about cars so she would never have to turn to others for help.

Raymond eventually learned to accept Brittney for who she was. "I don't think Ray could live with himself if he lost his daughter," Janell Roy, Brittney's best friend from high school told Elle. Brittney and Raymond recovered their former bond with the basketball star often honoring him on social media. "Ok daddy I see you looking good! Need [to] get like him on the lifting lol," she captioned an Instagram photo featuring her father shirtless with two other men in Vietnam, seen above.

Brittney Griner contemplated suicide during her time in Russian prison

The early days of her imprisonment in Russia took a huge toll on Brittney Griner's mental health. "I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks," she told ABC News in May 2024. "I felt like leaving here so badly." But the thoughts of what would happen to her remains kept her from doing it. She doubted Russian authorities would return her body to her family. Griner was pushed to her limit not only by the conditions of the Russian prison but also by how her sexuality was handled.

She had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation that made her fear she would be placed in a mental institution for being LGBTQ+. She told The New York Times that she was asked about her sexuality and drug use, which were both frowned upon in Russia. The thoughts of suicide continued to plague her, and it wasn't the first time that Griner struggled with suicidal ideation. In her school years, bullying also caused her to contemplate taking her own life.

"Some nights, I just wanted to end it all," she told Al Jazeera America in 2014. "No kid should want to end their life or not feel like they want to be here." Griner found strength in basketball, a sport that showed that the attributes she was teased for were strengths. "It was a way out, it was a way for me to feel free. It doesn't matter how I dress, how I look," she said. "All that matters is that if you could put the ball in the hole and how you perform."

Brittney Griner's mental health continued to suffer after her prison release

After returning home from Russia, Brittney Griner signed a deal for her WNBA comeback in February 2023, but she didn't play continuously. That summer, she missed three games to focus on her well-being. The Phoenix Mercury stood behind her. "The Mercury fully support Brittney and we will continue to work together on a timeline for her return," the franchise said in a July 2023 statement to Sports Illustrated.

Following her absence from the court, Griner told reporters (via ESPN), "You can't plan for when you might need some time." She also exalted her team's support, using it as an example of how to break the stigma around mental health. "The more people do that and make it normal, it's OK," Griner said while citing Simone Biles' decision to take a two-year break from gymnastics as an inspiration to prioritize her own mental well-being. "Before, no one dared even say it. You were looked upon as weak or not wanting to play or compete, which is completely the opposite mindset," she said.

Even before her traumatic experience in Russia, Griner had already taken a break to focus on her mental health and was outspoken about her reasons for doing so. In the summer of 2020, she left the WNBA bubble to seek counseling. "It's helped me out tremendously. I think more people should be open to talking about mental health issues. Instead of holding in so much," she told ESPN in 2021.

Brittney Griner's first marriage ended amid a domestic violence case

Before Brittney Griner found stability with her wife Cherelle Griner, she was in a tumultuous relationship with fellow basketball player Glory Johnson, seen above. Just months after the athletes became engaged, they were arrested after a physical altercation that left both with minor injuries, Sports Illustrated reported in April 2015. Both WNBA players were suspended amid the domestic violence case. However, two weeks later, Brittney and Johnson tied the knot on May 8, 2015.

Before the wedding, Johnson addressed the situation on social media. "We know we must set better examples, even during the most trying times, and we are EXTREMELY sorry for all the negative attention we brought to ourselves, our family, and the league," she captioned a since-deleted Instagram post (via Us Weekly). In June 2015, Johnson announced she was pregnant. Later that month, she shared that she and Griner had conceived twins via IVF. Unfortunately, the relationship was about to come crashing down. 

A day after Johnson revealed her pregnancy, Brittney filed for annulment. In court documents, she implied she was blindsided by the pregnancy, TMZ reported. The annulment was denied, and their divorce was finalized in June 2016. Brittney was ordered to pay child support. Despite their contentious divorce, Brittney and Johnson worked out their differences. Following Brittney's arrest, Johnson shared her support on Instagram. "Over the past several years, we still call each other to share our feelings, secrets, & even Life goals."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​. If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health websiteIf you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.