In February, Russian officials arrested American WNBA star Brittney Griner on alleged drug charges. And in May, her detention was extended until at least June ahead of a trial that could land her 10 years in prison. Now, there are mounting calls to get Griner home ASAP. Here’s what you need to know about the basketball star, why she was arrested, and how the US gov’s getting involved.
She’s a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury. The 31-year-old from Houston is also a two-time Olympic Gold medalist with Team USA. Since 2015, Griner’s played for the Russian basketball club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason. And she’s not the only star to take her talents abroad.
About half of the WNBA’s 144 athletes play overseas during the offseason. And this winter, more than a dozen played in Ukraine and Russia. Which begs the question: Why play so far away from home? The answer: bigger paychecks for one. The WNBA has a supermax salary cap of $228,094 for the 2022 season. And Griner’s set to earn $227,900 for this season. But in Russia, she makes more than quadruple that (read: $1 million). Meanwhile, some NBA players (read: men) make millions of dollars a year at home. Sound the buzzer if you think that’s BS.
PS: Listen to our podcast “Pop Cultured” for more on the discrepancies between WNBA and NBA players.
For alleged drug smuggling. Russian authorities released a video appearing to show Griner going through airport security and officials searching her things. Griner — who had flown into Russia from New York — was said to have vape cartridges with hashish oil (a cannabis product) in her luggage. Resulting in a criminal investigation.
Now, Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison. An official with access to Russian prisons previously told state media that Griner is sharing a cell with two other women with no previous convictions. In May, Griner made a brief court appearance. Her lawyer told The Associated Press she hasn’t had “any complaints about the detention conditions.”
It’s unclear when her trial could start. But her lawyer believes it could start soon. In the meantime, WNBA officials and Griner’s wife have been demanding her release. With many saying the timing of her arrest is suspicious.
It all comes amid Russia’s war with Ukraine. Many — including US lawmakers — are worried that Russia could be using Griner’s arrest as a form of leverage. Especially since the US has been supporting Ukraine with weapons and millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. And has shut out Moscow’s economy from the world with historic sanctions.
Some US lawmakers believe this follows a pattern of Russia imprisoning US citizens.Including former Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. In 2018, Whelan was arrested on espionage charges. And is serving a 16-year sentence. In 2020, Reed received a nine-year prison sentence for endangering Russian police officers. He was released in late April, as part of a US-Russia prisoner swap.
While Reed's release is being celebrated across the board, it's also prompting questions about Griner’s case. And has people tweeting things like “we need to do the same for Brittney Griner” and “what about Brittney Griner, tho?” Nearly three months after her arrest, gov officials classified her as “wrongfully detained” by Russia. Meaning, the US will try to negotiate Griner’s release while her case plays out in court. To date, more than 130,000 people have signed a petition calling for the basketball star’s release.
Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine has left the Kremlin isolated. Now, the arrest of an American citizen and star athlete has people wondering what Russia’s up to next. And many worry that Griner’s safety could be at risk in the hands of a gov that’s shown little regard for human life.
Updated May 16 to include news of Brittney Griner’s pre-trial detention extension
Skimm'd by Maria del Carmen Corpus, Maria McCallen, and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury
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