Free Brittney: What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

Brittney Griner

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The WNBA star has been detained since Feb. 17.

One of the most talented American athletes competing today has been detained in Russia for over a month. We’ve got more on WNBA star Brittney Griner, how she’s become ensnared in a high-stakes diplomatic quandary, and what’s being done to secure her release.

Who is Brittney Griner?

When Griner, a 6-foot-9-inch center, began her college career at Baylor University in 2009, it became immediately clear that she was a singular talent. She had speed, power, and coordination — a unique mix of qualities for a player of her size — that allowed her to easily take control of a game and dunk, which women’s college players had rarely done before. 

“Nobody can do what she can do,” basketball legend Nancy Lieberman told the New York Times. “Not Cheryl Miller. Not Lisa Leslie. Not Candace Parker.”

Griner was drafted into the WNBA in 2013 as the No. 1 overall pick. She’s since won a WNBA championship and two Olympic gold medals.

Why was Brittney Griner detained?

The seven-time WNBA All-Star was detained at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow after officials found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She’s been held on drug charges since Feb. 17, and this week Russia extended her detention until May 19, the Russian state news agency Tass reports. The offense could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

As Russia invaded Ukraine, the State Department began urging Americans in Russia to leave the country immediately, citing the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”

What’s known about Griner’s wellbeing?

An official from the U.S. embassy in Moscow was able to check on Griner during her detention, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said this week. She was found to be in good condition, the agency said, adding that they’ll continue to “work closely with (Griner’s) legal team, with her broader network, to see to it that she is treated fairly.”

The Russian state-news agency TASS previously reported that Griner’s being held in a cell with two other women and sleeping in a bed that’s predictably too small for her. She’s also spent her time reading a book by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky and a biography of one of the Rolling Stones.

Why is Griner in Russia?

Griner has played in Russia’s professional basketball league for the past seven years, earning more than $1 million per season. Playing overseas during the offseason is a common practice for WNBA players looking to supplement their salaries. 

The minimum salary in the league is $60,471 and the maximum base salary is set at $228,094 — per the NYT — far below what NBA players earn. By playing abroad, WNBA players can potentially earn several hundred thousand dollars or more during a season. About 70 of the league’s players are competing internationally, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine, the NYT reports.

What’s being done to “Free Brittney”?

The U.S. State Department has been “doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” spokesman Ned Price said.

Some U.S. diplomats are concerned Griner may have been targeted as a high-profile American and that her detention could be used as a way for Russia to gain leverage in Washington. “This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens,” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted. “US citizens are not political pawns.”

Castro also mentioned Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who in 2020 was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of assaulting two police officers in Moscow. His family and friends have denied the allegations and say they believe the conviction was politically motivated. 

Recently, Griner’s supporters — including Hillary Clinton — have started calling to “Free Brittney” on social media, latching onto the hashtag popularized by Britney Spears fans.

“We cannot ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner wasn’t a Black woman, it would be plastered across the news that she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia,” Missouri Rep. Cori Bush tweeted. “Free Brittney Griner.”