Updated: Jul 13
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
On Saturday, March 5, the New York Times reported that Brittney Griner, seven-time WNBA All-Star and WNBA Champion, was detained by Russian Federal Customs Service for possession of marijuana vape cartridges. The charges carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Unfortunately, given the current political situation playing out between the United States and Russia, there may not be a swift resolution to this case.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, diplomacy between the US and Russia has deteriorated. Now, after Griner’s arrest, the full magnitude of this disintegration is becoming clear and one extremely important lesson is being learned: Russia will not hesitate to target American citizens.
The US State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia on Saturday and encouraged any US nationals in the country to depart immediately. They cited “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and “the Embassy’s limited ability to assist” those who remain in Russia.
Griner, however, has reportedly been in Russian custody since February. Details are scarce.
“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,” Griner's agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said Saturday. “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.”
The State Department is aware of Griner’s situation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured that the department is working to provide assistance, stating, “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia. We have an embassy team that’s working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”
Griner, who has played in the WNBA since 2013 after being drafted first overall by the Phoenix Mercury, has played for the Russian UMMC Ekaterinburg team for the last seven years during the winter months to supplement her WNBA salary. For UMMC Ekaterinburg, Griner makes over $1 million per season, almost quadruple what she earns with the Mercury.
According to the Associated Press, more than a dozen WNBA players were active in leagues in Russia and Ukraine this winter. Fortunately, the WNBA has confirmed that every player save Griner has returned safely to the United States.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States,” said the league in a statement.
It’s impossible to overstate how scary Griner’s situation is. On the one hand, she faces up to ten years in a Russian federal prison. While Russian prisons have come a long way since Joseph Stalin and the Gulags, that’s still not a place anyone wants to be. On the other hand, Griner also faces the horrible reality that she could be used as a political pawn for Vladimir Putin and his megalomaniacal aims.
With the Ukraine crisis unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, Griner is now in a position where Putin could use her as leverage over the United States. What his plans are and the ways he could use Griner are anyone’s guess.
The ripple effects of Griner’s arrest will be massive. Despite the opportunity to make significantly more money overseas, it would be a major surprise to see American women continue to suit up for Russian basketball teams in the future. I would never begrudge someone for trying to maximize their earnings, but right now, playing in Russia doesn’t seem like it could possibly be worth the risk.
The list of WNBA stars that have played for UMMC Ekaterinburg is long and fascinating. The list includes legends such as Diana Turasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker and Maya Moore.
It will also be fascinating to see how this situation affects China’s relationship with American basketball. WNBA stars have found opportunities in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association just as lucrative as the Russian league. Griner herself played for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls from 2013-14. Other stars like Moore, Parker, the Ogwumike sisters and A’ja Wilson all have spent time in the WCBA.
Although China has played a passive role in the current Ukraine conflict, that position has not endeared it to the United States and its NATO allies. If tensions continue to rise, WNBA stars may look to avoid playing there as well. Given basketball’s huge popularity in China, this would certainly be a blow.
Hopefully, both the Ukraine crisis and Griner’s situation will be resolved quickly and peacefully. Unfortunately, reality might not cooperate. At this time, it seems unlikely that Russia will slow its assault on Ukraine, and, given how massive some of the sanctions from the rest of the world have been, Russia may be content to let the Griner situation play out in the Russian court system instead of involving diplomats.
Griner is facing a terrifying reality that she may be kept in Russia for the foreseeable future, or at least until Russia and Ukraine can come to an armistice. Griner’s wife, Cherelle T. Griner posted to Instagram Monday, saying, “there are no words to express this pain. I'm hurting, we're hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”
Please keep Brittney Griner, her family, and all the citizens of Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers.