One of the best women basketball players in the world, Olympic gold medalist, seven-time WNBA All Star, and WNBA champion Brittney Griner has been arrested and detained in Russia. Griner, a vocally out lesbian known for her outreach to and mentoring of LGBT+ youth, is at grave risk in a country notorious for its repressive actions toward LGBT+ people, particularly lesbians and gay men.
Griner is also now a high-profile political pawn at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are at their worst in decades. The White House, U.S. State Department and Griner’s Congressperson, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), have all weighed in on Griner’s detention. Griner’s wife, Cherelle T. Griner, has posted on Instagram calling for her spouse’s release and safe return. The WNBA has issued statements about their concern for Griner’s physical and mental well-being.
Griner was detained and arrested sometime in early February, but no specific date has been released by Russian officials. The story of her arrest was broken by the New York Times on March 5. A mugshot of her as well as video from Russian state TV were released March 7.
Griner, 31, is a championship-winning player with WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Like many WNBA players who are grossly underpaid in the U.S., making about a quarter of what NBA players make, Griner plays in Russia in the WNBA off season. There she has led the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League, for which she has played since 2015, to five championships. In 2021, Griner won the EuroLeague Women championship.
Despite her high-profile international status, there are disturbingly few details about Griner’s arrest and detention — including where she is being held or any statement on her mental and physical health. That Griner was detained a month ago with no news surfacing until March 5 has raised concern among her family, the WNBA, and her fans for her health. The last images of Griner are from her arrest last month.
The Russian Federal Customs Service said a U.S. citizen at Sheremetyevo Airport was found to be carrying hash oil when their bags were searched. Russia’s Interfax News Agency quoted a statement from the Customs Service, which did not identify Griner by name, but video released March 8 shows the very distinctive Griner, who is 6’9″ with long braids. Griner was identified by the Russia state-operated news agency Tass on March 5.
A statement from the Russian Customs Service said, “As a U.S. citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage.”
The statement continues, “The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the U.S. citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance.”
Griner was not named in the initial statement, which only said “a U.S. citizen” was detained “in February of 2022,” after flying to Moscow from New York. No specific date was given, but Griner appears to have been detained about a month ago. Russian customs said Griner was secured in “pre-trial detention” and that a criminal case against her had been launched for “smuggling significant amounts of narcotic substances,” notably cannabis oil in vape cartridges.
The offense carries a 10 year prison sentence.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service described the charge against Griner to Russia 24, Russia’s main state-owned news channel. “A criminal case has been opened against an American citizen under section 2 of 229 YK RF (Russian law) for smuggling of a significant amount of drugs,” Irina Begisheva of the Main Directorate for the Fight Against Smuggling of the Federal Customs Service told Russia 24.
On March 7, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responded to questions about Griner saying she was aware of the reports, but that federal privacy law prevented the U.S. government from discussing a person’s detention without their written consent. The New York Times noted “American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens on pretexts” and there seems little question Griner was racially profiled at the airport.
Evelyn Farkas, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine under President Obama, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on March 7 that she feared for Griner’s well-being and that “we should be worried.”
Farkas told Yahoo Sports Griner could become a “high-profile hostage.”
Farkas said, “If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms. It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”
In an Instagram post March 7, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner wrote, “People say ‘stay busy.’ Yet, there’s not a task in this world that could keep any of us from worrying about you. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by. There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting.”
In a statement, Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas said: “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.”
“With all the problems with Russia and them attacking Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?” said Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach. “Is this part of politics? So much of it doesn’t make any sense to me that I find it hard to believe that this is really the true thing that happened.”
A report by CNN Moscow correspondent Lucy Kafanov on March 8 cited how Russian TV had ridiculed Griner and “mockingly referenced her sexual orientation.” Video showed Griner’s tattoo on her abdomen of interlocking women’s symbols — a lesbian image.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, voiced his concerns for Griner to CNN March 7. “Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” Garamendi said. “Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don’t know.”
He also noted that “Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws.”
In a statement March 8, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, said she and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus had met with President Biden March 7 and had discussed Griner’s detainment and “the need for her to be immediately released and for her to receive the help of the United States to demand and facilitate that release.”
“The best news we got today was that they know about it and that she’s on the agenda,” Lee told reporters after the Biden meeting. “We know about Britney Griner, and we know that we have to move on her situation.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there are ongoing efforts to secure Griner’s release.
Tamryn Spruill, a journalist who covers women’s basketball, started the “Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the U.S.” petition on Change.org.
“Like many athletes competing in the WNBA, Griner plays abroad during the WNBA offseason because her salary is exponentially higher in other countries,” Spruill wrote on the petition’s page.
“For WNBA players, that means playing abroad, while NBA rookies who haven’t played a professional game yet are handed salaries many-times higher that what title-winning, All-Star designated WNBA veterans could ever hope for,” Spruill said.
“These realities are not the fault of the players. They simply want to be paid their worth like their male counterparts, and they do not deserve to be entangled in geopolitical turmoil for doing so.”