What happened to WNBA star Brittney Griner?

WNBA star Brittney Griner, 31, has been detained in Russia since February after drugs were allegedly found in her luggage by officials at a Moscow airport.

Her detainment occurred shortly before Russia launched its war in Ukraine, raising concerns that geopolitical tensions will make securing her release more difficult.

Ms Griner’s family, friends and fans — alongside many public figures — have been calling on Russia to release her for months and for the US State Department to intervene.

Here’s everything we know about Ms Griner’s detainment.

Who is Brittney Griner?

Ms Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team as a center. She also formerly competed with the US Olympic basketball team in 2016. She competed in the Olympics for the US again in 2020, where she won her second gold medal.

She is an accomplished basketball player, earning a Best Female Athlete award at the ESPYs and earning an endorsement deal with Nike in 2013.

What happened?

On 17 February, Ms Griner was traveling through the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when Russian customs officials allegedly found cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Ms Griner was taken into custody at the airport. Tom Firestone, a lawyer specializing in international criminal and compliance matters told ESPN that Ms Griner has been charged with illegally crossing a customs border with illegal narcotics.

He said that the charges waged against her can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. If she is found to have been carrying more than 2.5 grams of illegal narcotics, she could face up to 20 years in prison.

On Monday, Russian courts scheduled Ms Griner’s trial to begin on Monday.

Why was she in Russia?

Ms Griner had been in Russia to play basketball in the Russian Premiere League.

Many American athletes travel overseas during the US off-season to continue competing in their chosen sport. The off-season foreign leagues provide American athletes with additional money making opportunities and a chance to keep up their skills sharp through continuous competition. WNBA stars like Ms Griner notably make, on average, a mere 1.5 per cent of the salary that NBA players make in a year so playing outside the US often helps make up for that pay disparity.

Ms Griner earns $1m per season she plays in Russia. Her base salary from Ella at the Phoenix Mercury is $221,450.

What is being done to help her?

Supporters of Ms Griner, alongside her family and friends, have been calling for the woman’s release.

Democratic Representative John Garamendi told CNN that securing her release will be “very difficult” due to the ongoing political tensions between Russia and the US.

There are some US officials who have theorized that Russia is using Ms Griner’s detainment as a political bargaining chip. Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas said she feared Ms Griner would be used by Russia as a “high-profile hostage,” which Russia could use to secure prisoner exchanges with the US.

On 23 March, a diplomatic official was granted access to visit Ms Griner in Russia, and said that she was in “good condition.” Russian monitors also checked in on Ms Griner and reported that she was fine with the exception that the bed in the facility where she is being held was not built for someone of her height.

More than 40 organisations, which includes the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the National Urban League and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, sent Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris a signed letter calling on Mr Biden to make a deal with Russia to secure her release.

A prisoner swap was reportedly considered on 15 May, with Ms Griner being returned to the US in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout. Mr Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, of delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and of providing aid to a terrorist organization. He is currently being held in the US Penitentiary.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has spoken with Ms Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and said his top priority was ensuring the release of Americans imprisoned in Russia.

“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. “That includes Paul Whelan, that includes Brittney Griner, that includes people in a number of other countries.”

The US Embassy in Moscow will send a diplomat to attend Ms Griner’s hearing on Friday, according to officials who spoke to CNN.

The State Department’s official stance is that Ms Griner is being “wongfully detained” and that it will continue to work to secure her release.

“The US government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release from her, ”a department spokesperson said.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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