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Why Is WNBA Star Brittney Griner Being Detained in Russia?

The New York Liberty starters huddle before a game, wearing jerseys bearing Breonna Taylor's name.

Russia has been in the news quite frequently lately, and not for a good reason, after invading the sovereign state of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Now, Russia has made headlines again, this time for detaining American basketball star Brittney Griner, allegedly for being in possession of an illegal substance.

Griner currently plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association. She has been a member of the team since 2013 and has made big waves in the WNBA as a seven-time WNBA all-star, two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time gold medalist with Team USA at FIBA Women’s Basketball World Championships. Griner also helped lead the USA’s Women’s Olympics Team to a gold medal victory in 2016 and 2020.

Needless to say, Griner is a force to be reckoned with on the court. She is considered to be among the top female basketball players in the world. In addition to this, Griner is an advocate for the LBGT community. She has been open and honest about her experience of coming out during a time rife with homophobia. In 2013, Griner became the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement with Nike. She especially advocates supporting LGBT youth and providing them with safe spaces.

Why was Brittney Griner arrested?

Griner was arrested in February 2022 in Russia at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. She was arrested for allegedly possessing vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a cannabis concentrate that is illegal in Russia. Hence, Griner was accused of smuggling a narcotic substance—an offense that could be punishable with up to 10 years in prison. Like many WNBA stars, Griner was in Russia because she was competing overseas during the off-season for financial reasons.

Response to Griner’s arrest

Griner’s arrest has sparked an outpouring of support and concern from her family, fans, Phoenix Mercury, the WNBA, and politicians. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, posted on Instagram to update fans on the situation. She thanked supporters for their concern and requested privacy while working to get Griner out of Russia safely.

Phoenix Mercury also released a statement, assuring fans that they were closely monitoring the situation with Griner. They indicated their top priority is Griner’s physical and mental wellbeing, as well as in bringing her home to safety.

Democrat U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has also spoken out on the situation and has called for the release of Griner. She has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being a war criminal and of detaining American citizens as “pawns” on false charges. Lee has called on the U.S. government to demand the release of Griner and other detainees in Russia.

What does Brittney Griner’s detainment mean?

Especially in the context of current global events, Griner’s arrest is a very serious situation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given Russia the status of global pariah, as the country engages in a needless war that will cost thousands of lives. The U.S., along much of the rest of the world, has begun to impose economic sanctions on Russia, in an effort to support Ukraine. Putin has chillingly warned the West that he considers financial sanctions an act of war.

Needless to say, peace between the U.S. and Russia is precarious. Now, an American athlete is being detained in Russia for an unknown amount of time. The U.S. State Department recently issued a warning for Americans to leave Russia immediately and not to travel to Russia, given their attack on Ukraine. That warning was not given without reason, and the safety of Americans in the country is questionable. When peace is being tested on a global scale, the detainment of an American in Russia raises serious concerns.

We hope that Griner will be allowed to return home safely soon. According to U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, the U.S. State Department is actively working to bring Griner home, though he says, “I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services,” and that “this is not the first time in recent years that an American has been detained and then held either without reason or without a sufficient kind of explanation. What’s obviously different here is that Brittney is an extremely high-profile athlete, and it’s happening during the course of a Russian-begun war in Ukraine, in which we are deeply opposed to what they’re doing.”

(Image: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

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Rachel Ulatowski is a Freelance Writer, blogger, and aspiring author. As a Freelancer Writer she hopes to give readers the same comfort and enjoyment that she finds in all things nerdy and noteworthy, as a blogger she enjoys snarking on YouTubers and reality stars, and as a future novelist she hopes to raise awareness for child abuse through literature.