What we know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia

The WNBA superstar was stopped at a Moscow-area airport in February. Details are sparse.

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A WNBA All-Star is at the center of geopolitical tensions.

In early March, reports broke that a player for the U.S. women’s basketball team was arrested in Russia.

The arrest came after Russian officials allegedly found vape cartridges in her luggage. While Russia’s customs service didn’t identify the person, Russian media reported it was Brittney Griner.

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A Houston native, Griner is one of the biggest names in WNBA history.

She was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury No. 1 overall in 2013. Currently, she ranks top 10 in Mercury all-time records in 16 different categories.

In addition, Griner is a seven-time All-Star, WNBA champion, and a two-time gold medalist with the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team.

WNBA athletes often play overseas for the winter.

The WNBA’s salary cap keeps players from earning money close to comparable to their other pro-league counterparts. Griner has played in Russia for the last seven winters, where the Associated Press reported she earns over $1 million per season — which is more than quadruple her WNBA salary.

She was among over a dozen other WNBA players in Russia and Ukraine this winter.

The WNBA’s 2021 MVP, Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun, was also in Russia when the country’s invasion of Ukraine began. She confirmed on March 2 that she was able to leave the country.

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Do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, [and] the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia . . .

There are a lot of unknowns in Griner’s case.

Per AP, the Russian Customs Service said the discovered cartridges had oil derived from cannabis.

If that is true, Griner is potentially facing a maximum penalty of 10 years in a Russian prison.

The New York Times noted that “American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens on pretexts.”

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With rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia, some fear Griner may become a “political pawn.”

Others are concerned because simply existing as a Black gay woman comes with its own risks.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told the Times, “As we work to get [Griner] home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”

I spend hours in communication every day with a dedicated group of people who are working to get BG home. It is a community filled with activists. ... It’s a community that chooses its words carefully, that’s used to moving together as a unit.

In early May, it was reported that the U.S. had successfully negotiated a prisoner swap with Russia. But the prisoner was former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, not Griner. The White House reportedly prioritized Reed because of concerns about his health.

One legal analyst told Insider they felt that while Reed’s release was a “very bad thing for Brittney Griner.”

“She literally is the most high-profile male or female [American] athlete in Russia, so she’s the perfect person to grab,” the expert, Aron Solomon, said.

On May 3, ESPN reported that the U.S. government had classified Griner as being “wrongfully detained” by Russia.

That designation meant the U.S. would more actively negotiate for her release, rather than waiting for the case to play out in Russian court.

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In late June, it was announced Griner could be detained until at least December.

But on July 7, Griner pleaded guilty to bringing cannabis into the country. She told the judge, “There was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” explaining she’d packed in a hurry and made a mistake.

Some think the guilty plea was part of an effort to get Griner home sooner in a prisoner swap, which Russia had reportedly refused to entertain until she was convicted.


On August 4, Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.

President Biden immediately issued a statement, calling the sentence “unacceptable” and vowing that his “administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan [a detained former U.S. Marine] home safely as soon as possible.”

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