What to know about Brittney Griner's detainment and why she was in Russia
Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star, was arrested last month at a Moscow airport after authorities allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Her detainment by Russian authorities, which could have started as long as a month ago, has raised concerns that the star could be used as a "high-profile hostage," a former Pentagon official told Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg.
Here are the details of the case, what to know about Brittney Griner, why she was in Russia and what those close to her are saying publicly.
Who is Brittney Griner?
Griner, 31, is a decorated veteran professional basketball player who plays at home in the WNBA, abroad for overseas clubs and internationally for Team USA.
The 6-foot-9 center grew up in Houston, and enrolled at Baylor as the nation's top recruit. She led the Bears to the 2012 NCAA championship, where she was named Most Outstanding Player as a junior, and earned nearly every major award as a senior in 2013. That's where her national recognition was built.
The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury drafted her No. 1 overall in April 2013 and they won a title in her second season. She's a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Peak Performer for leading the league in scoring. In 2021, she was an MVP candidate as the Mercury came two wins away from a fourth championship.
Her international play is even more impressive. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, which extended its streak to seven consecutive golds this past summer in Tokyo, and two-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist. In 2014 she was named to the All-Tournament World Cup team and in 2018 was named the best player in the gold medal game.
She's one of only 11 players to win an Olympic gold, FIBA World Cup gold, WNBA title and NCAA title.
Why was she in Russia?
Many if not most WNBA players spend their long offseason with clubs overseas to supplement their salaries stateside. The maximum WNBA base salary for 2022 is $228,094 for a season that typically runs May to September whereas clubs in Europe will often pay 10 times that.
Griner joined Russian Premier League powerhouse UMMC Yekaterinburg (also referenced as Ekaterinburg) in the 2015-16 season. It's the same club that paid Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi a $1.5 million salary in the 2010s. The club “pays per month at a level no one matches," longtime women's basketball agent Mike Cound told Eisenberg.
The 2021-22 roster included Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart and Chicago Sky champions Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. WNBA 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones of the Bahamas and 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meeseman of Belgium are also on the roster. The same group went undefeated to win the 2021 Russian league title for a third consecutive year and added the EuroLeague title last April.
Stewart stayed stateside after undergoing a minor surgery on her Achilles. Jones tweeted about the stress of leaving Russia. A WNBA spokesman said all players in Ukraine and Russia, except Griner, are now out.
When was she detained?
The timeline on Griner's detainment is unclear. The Russian Federal Customs Service said Griner, who was not named in their statement via Russia’s Interfax News Agency, "was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York." Russian authorities said it happened in February. Some have speculated she has been detained for three weeks.
The agency said it has opened a criminal investigation into an alleged large-scale transportation of drugs. It carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years in Russia.
Griner last played for the club on Jan. 29, days before the league's international break for FIBA World Cup qualification games in the first two weeks of February. Team USA defeated Belgium and Puerto Rico at its camp in Washington that featured new faces over established veteran talent. Griner was not on the training camp roster. She is not a frequent Instagram poster, but last put a photo up Feb. 5.
What else should we know about her?
Griner is one of the most well-known women's basketball players in the U.S. and in the world. She is the second woman to dunk in the NCAA tournament and the first player to do it in a WNBA game. In many ways, she has pushed the game forward over the past decade.
Her off-the-court life also makes her a prominent force. Griner publicly said she was gay in 2013 after the WNBA draft and has said it was an "open secret" at Baylor, but she was asked not to discuss it. LGBTQ+ advocates have voiced particular concern for Griner based on Russia's anti-LGBTQ stances and laws.
"Our thoughts are with Brittney Griner, her loved ones, and her teammates during this terrifying ordeal," said a spokesperson for Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights in sports. “Brittney has long been a powerful voice for LGBTQ equality. It's critical that now we use our collective voice to call for her safe and swift return to her family.”
She has also been open about mental health over the years. The WNBA held its 2020 season in a "bubble" at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and halfway through Griner left for "personal reasons." She told reporters early last year that going to counseling after she left had "done wonders for me" and she advocated for more discussion in the Black community about mental health.
What makes this an issue now?
American basketball stars have played in Russia for decades now without much of a major issue. Much like high-profile celebrities in the United States, there's a sense that certain people are insulated from the strictness of the country's laws. And WNBA players on Russian superteams owned by billionaires are included in that. Take for example Griner and her sexuality. Via Kate Fagan for an ESPN profile in May 2016:
In the past three years, Russia has made international headlines for its strict anti-LGBT law, making the country a curious choice for Griner, who has long been open about her sexuality. But Russia's hostile climate, which elsewhere in the country has resulted in arrests, seems a world away from Griner, who is here to play ball, not make a human rights stand. As long as she doesn't run through Red Square waving a rainbow flag, nobody says a thing.
Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird detailed for ESPN's "30 for 30" podcast the financial benefit of playing for Spartak Moscow in the 2000s that included the best hotels, lodging, travel and a limitless credit card. There's a certain level of support and protection that playing for such people allows. Winning also alleviates problems, and Yekaterinburg has won plenty.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the tensions leading up to it, are the major factor in the politics of Griner's arrest. UMMC Yekaterinburg is owned by Iskander Makhmudov, a Russian oligarch who created the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company (UMMC) in 1999. His estimated worth in May 2021 was $9.7 billion. As of Monday it is $5.7 billion, per Forbes.
Nations have sanctioned Russia since the invasion, and its economy is being hit hard. The European Union imposed sanctions on 16 Russian oligarchs so far, though Makhmudov is not yet in that group. But the invasion and sanctions have shifted power and those with the Russian superteam might not be able to shield their players as they once could.
What are people close with Griner saying?
The WNBA and its players association (WNBPA) issued statements of support for Griner and prioritizing bringing her home safely to the U.S.
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, her agent at Waserman, issued the following statement the day news of Griner's arrest broke:
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA. As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not comment specifically on Griner for "privacy considerations" when asked during a news conference in Moldova on Sunday.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia," he said.
WNBA players and fans have taken to social media in support and worry of the superstar. Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, called it "one of the weakest moments" of her life in an Instagram post on Sunday. She shared another on Monday with a group photo.
"My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by," she wrote.