Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, remains in Russian custody after being detained in February at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The Russian Federal Customs Service claims to have found vape cartridges containing the marijuana concentrate hashish oil in Griner’s luggage.
Griner, 31, is under criminal investigation for “large-scale transportation of drugs, an offense that can carry a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia,” according to The New York Times. The Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s WNBA team, and the WNBPA both issued their support.
Video of Griner attempting to pass through airport screening emerged from Russian customs on March 5, but the service didn’t identify the former Baylor star by name. The Russian news agency TASS then confirmed it was Griner, and Russian state TV released an undated photo of her at a police station later that day. The two-time Olympic gold medallist was reportedly detained on Feb. 17.
According to a report from Russian state news agency TASS on March 17, a Moscow court has extended her detention until May 19.
Ekaterina Kalugina, a representative of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission which oversees how prisoners are treated, says US consul has not made a visit to Griner. Kalugina says this is despite Russian authorities saying they will “create all conditions” for a visit to occur.
Russia brought a full-scale military attack against Ukraine on Feb. 24, prompting the U.S. and other countries to issue severe sanctions against Russia. It’s unclear whether Russia’s detainment of Griner, who has played for the Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the last few WNBA offseasons, was a retaliatory act.
Regardless of Russia’s intentions, the U.S. government reportedly plans to initiate a “drawn-out battle” to return Griner to her home country.
How have American politicians reacted?
The reaction to Griner’s situation has been somewhat muted among American politicians over concerns of the former WNBA champion’s privacy. Three U.S. congress members representing Griner’s home state of Texas, however, have given their support.
Texas congressman Colin Allred, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is personally working with the State Department to accelerate Griner’s return to the U.S. Allred describes the situation as “extremely concerning.”
“Every day for anyone being held, particularly being held overseas, is a lifetime,” said Allred, a former NFL linebacker who played football at Baylor in the early 2000s. “I recognize that for her friends and family, this must be an incredibly difficult time. And for her, I’m sure the uncertainty about what’s happening is probably just terrible. And so, hopefully, whatever happens, we can get this moving quickly and get her out.”
In a Twitter post, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro said he’s “closely monitoring” Griner’s Russian detention and demanded she be “safely returned.”
“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens,” Castro wrote on March 5. ” … US citizens are not political pawns.”
Castro’s comments were similar to those of Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Speaking in front of a crowd, Jackson Lee called for Griner’s release and said she requested the State Department prioritize her case.
“If there’s challenges and concerns about her actions, it should be dealt with diplomatically and she should be released,” Jackson Lee said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House press secretary Jen Psaki both declined to directly comment on Griner’s situation over the past week, citing privacy concerns. Psaki noted federal privacy law requires the U.S. government to get written consent from a person in detention to discuss their situation.
Blinken did, however, say his department is “doing everything we can” to ensure the rights of all Americans detained in Russia are “upheld and respected.”
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia,” Blinken said on March 6.
Assistance won’t be easy to provide in Griner’s case, according to California congressman John Garamendi. Garamendi, who also serves on the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, said the “nonexistent” diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Russia will make securing her release “very difficult.”
“Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” Garamendi told CNN on Monday. “Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don’t know.”
Garamendi added Griner’s sexual orientation — she is an out lesbian — could make the process even more challenging because “Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws.”
While it’s yet to be determined whether Russia detained Griner to provoke the U.S., the State Department urged American citizens to immediately leave Russia to avoid the “potential for harassment” in an updated advisory on March 5.
Why was Griner in Russia?
Griner is one of about 70 WNBA players – nearly half the league’s 144 roster spots – competing internationally during the 2022 offseason. She was also among the dozen-plus playing in Russia or Ukraine – all of whom, aside from Griner, have left. UMMC Ekaterinburg alone has five WNBA All-Stars in Griner, reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot on its current roster.
While Griner and Co. have varying reasons for playing internationally, many do so for financial purposes. The WNBA’s minimum and maximum salaries are $60,471 and $228,094, respectively. Those numbers are far below what the NBA offers, as that league – which plays 82 games compared to the WNBA’s 36 – has a minimum salary of $925,000 and maximum salaries starting at more than $28 million.
Griner reportedly earns $1 million per season to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The WNBA’s relatively low salaries forced former league MVP – and Griner’s Mercury teammate – Diana Taurasi to accept a contract worth a reported $1.5 million from UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015 even though it would keep her from that year’s WNBA season.
“The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down,” Taurasi wrote in an open letter to fans. “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”
In 2020, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to a new eight-year CBA that would raise the average salary to nearly $130,000, its first time above six figures. The WNBA’s maximum salary was $117,500 the year prior.