Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russia

Here’s what that could mean for her return to the U.S.

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Mosco...
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WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty Thursday to drug charges that have kept her held in Russia for more than four months. During an appearance in a Moscow court, the eight-time All-Star admitted to bringing cannabis into the country, but insisted she did not intend to break Russian law in the process.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said. It was her second appearance in court since her trial began last Friday. Griner has been in Russian custody since Feb. 17, one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, when authorities allegedly found a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage. The Russian government has accused her of drug smuggling, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Shortly before Griner entered her guilty plea, she received a letter from President Biden, which was provided to her by Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Some have theorized that the letter may have played a role in Griner’s decision to plead guilty.

Russia has threatened to detain Griner until a verdict in her case is reached, and the trial was set to take up to two full months — during which Griner was expected to remain in Russian custody. By entering a guilty plea, it is possible that the trial may be expedited. CNN reported that Russia had refused any potential prisoner swap involving Griner until she was convicted and admitted fault. The Russian government required the same of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was detained in the country for allegedly endangering the life of a police officer. Reed was eventually released as part of a prisoner swap earlier this year.

Now that Griner has pleaded guilty, it’s possible that diplomatic avenues might open up to make her return to the U.S. possible. The Biden administration has been roundly criticized for its inaction in the case. On Wednesday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, to discuss the administration’s plans to secure the WBNA star’s release.

Griner had played in the Russian professional basketball league for the last eight seasons, playing overseas to supplement her WNBA income. Despite leading the WNBA in scoring and blocks in multiple seasons and being one of the league’s most dominating players, Griner makes just $221,450 in salary in the WNBA. By contrast, she earned a reported $1 million per year from her Russian squad. About half of the WNBA’s players play overseas during the league’s offseason in order to make enough to continue, which can force them into difficult situations like the one Griner currently faces.