Brittney Griner detainment, explained: Why Russia is holding Phoenix Mercury star in custody and how WNBA has reacted

Brittney Griner detainment, explained: Why Russia is holding Phoenix Mercury star in custody and how WNBA has reacted

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia after the Russian Federal Customs Service claimed it found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, as reported by The New York Times and Russian News agency TASS.

The customs service didn’t release a name or specify the date of detainment in its statement, as officials only said they detained an American basketball player who had won two gold medals with the U.S. team. TASS later identified the player as Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who won gold medals in 2016 and 2021.

Original news of Griner’s detainment came amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to many WNBA players leaving those countries.

Here are the latest details on the evolving situation.

Why was Brittney Griner detained in Russia?

Griner, who has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason, was detained after customs service officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport. The customs service also released a video of an individual at the airport who appears to be Griner going through security.

Russian state TV showed a photo of Griner as part of a segment that aired on March 5. The photo was reportedly taken at a Russian police station.

A criminal case has been opened into the “large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia,” according to The New York Times.

What did the WNBA and Phoenix Mercury say about Brittney Griner’s detainment?

The WNBA announced on May 3 that it will feature Griner’s initials and jersey number (No. 42) on the sideline of all WNBA courts this season. The league also granted the Mercury roster and salary cap relief so they can carry a replacement player. Griner will continue to be paid her full salary.

“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”

The WNBA’s announcement on May 3 is the latest in a series of public statements released since the original reporting of her detainment earlier this spring.

WNBA statement (March 5)

“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”

Phoenix Mercury statement (March 5)

“We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”

WNBPA statement (March 5)

“We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S.”

USA Basketball statement (March 5)

“USA Basketball is aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia. Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball and her safety and well-being are our primary concerns.”

Are there any other WNBA players in Russia?

A league spokesperson told The New York Times on March 5 that all WNBA players other than Griner were out of Russia and Ukraine.

Why do WNBA players compete in Russia?

Many WNBA players, including the league’s biggest stars, have gone overseas during the offseason because international leagues offer much higher salaries than the WNBA.

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who has also played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, earns approximately $1.5 million per season overseas compared to a WNBA supermax salary of $228,094. After signing a one-year deal with the Storm, Stewart expressed her concerns about recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement that push players to prioritize the WNBA over other leagues.

“Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years,” Stewart said in February. “To be able to play overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we’re treated really well and able to make a lot of money, it’s just hard for me. With the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it.

“That’s something that needs to be kind of figured out. I don’t have a great answer for what’s going to happen. But I think it’s going to affect a lot more players in the WNBA than people think right now.”

When will Brittney Griner be released?

Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boykov, told The Associated Press on May 13 that Griner’s detention had been extended by one month. ESPN’s T.J. Quinn reported that a judge had denied a request to move Griner to home detention.

“We did not receive any complaints about the detention conditions from our client,” Boykov said.

Quinn reported on May 3 that the U.S. government now considers Griner to be “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government. That means the U.S. government will seek to negotiate her return rather than let her legal case play out.

“Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement to ESPN on May 3.

A State Department official told ESPN that Griner is not considered a hostage, as that term falls under a different legal classification than wrongful detainee.