Sydney McKinney-Williams, Staff Writer
Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury in the 2021 WNBA playoffs game four. Photo//Rick Scuteri//AP
WNBA player Brittney Griner has now been detained in Russia for almost a month. Efforts to bring her home have been in full effect since the U.S. was notified at the start of March. Russia has claimed to have had Griner in their custody since February 17th, 2022.
Griner was detained on account of possession of vapes with cannabis oils in her luggage. It was also claimed that she possessed a significant amount of these substances. This offense in Russia can result in a potential five to ten years in prison.
Griner is one of the WNBA’s biggest stars, and many players in the league travel overseas to play in the offseason because international teams are more willing to pay huge contracts for their talent. Griner has been playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.
The decision to play overseas is not uncommon. Another notable WNBA player, Diana Taurasi, has made over one million dollars playing for the same team. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who is heavily involved in trying to bring Griner home, acknowledges that “while pay equity is improving, many players still opt to play overseas.” Several players also want to continue to play because their bodies allow them to, and they love the game of basketball.
Her imprisonment could not have come at a worse time due to the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and the U.S.’s role in the conflict.
Brittney Griner at Sheremetyevo airport customs in Moscow, Russia. Photo//Russian Federal Customs Service//AP
Russia invaded Ukraine about a week after Griner’s imprisonment, and she still has not had any official government contact with any U.S. authorities. U.S. representative Collin Allred has called the situation “unusual and extremely concerning.”
Allred has gone on to say, "For Brittney's sake, we don't want her to become a part of this kind of political battle that's going on, and we want to make sure that her rights are respected and that we are able to get access to her, and that she can get through the process and get home as quickly as possible."
The U.S. embassy was denied consular access to Griner earlier this week, but her Russian lawyer has been in contact with her agent and family in the U.S.
The Russian state news agency Tass reported on March 17th that Griner's detention period will be extended. A quote from Tass reads, “The court granted the request of investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19th.”
Ekaterina Kalugina of the regional Public Monitoring commission, a panel in Russia that monitors Russian prisoner’s conditions, informed Tass that Griner has two female inmates. Her inmates are also in prison for narcotics offenses.
The inmates speak English, help Griner communicate with the staff at her location, and have been able to get her books. The beds in their cell, however, pose another issue for Griner as she is 6-foot-9 and the beds were designed for shorter people.
Griner is an openly gay Black woman and has done a lot of work for LBGT+ initiatives in the U.S. It is unclear if these things will impact her case in Russia because of the country’s very strict laws for LBGT+.
Brittney Griner, playing on the Olympic women’s basketball team in 2021. Photo// Mike Theiler// AP
People close to Griner have commented on the situation, like her high school coach Debbie Jackson. Jackson says, “It’s just hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete that knows the laws of that country and the cultural differences and norms and just the completely different political system, would even think about putting in their carry-on bag something that was a banned substance in that country.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, came out with a statement on Instagram following the news of Brittney’s arrest. In the statement, Cherelle says, "There are no words to express this pain. I'm hurting, we're hurting."
With the criminal system in Russia being much different than the one in the U.S., this situation will not be easy to solve. U.S. representative John Garmendi acknowledges that getting Griner home will be very difficult since our “diplomatic relations with Russia are nonexistent.”
It could be weeks or even months before Griner returns home to the U.S., so it will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the near future.