Russian authorities detain WNBA star after arrest

Illustration by Greta Burton

The Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, after the Russian Federal Customs Service allegedly found cannabis oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport located near Moscow. Griner has played basketball in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2016.

Customs officials reported finding vape cartridges of hashish oil, a form of marijuana concentrate. Griner faces charges in accordance with Russian Article 229.1, which describes the illegal crossing of a customs border while in possession of illegal narcotics. If found guilty, Griner faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. This sentence, however, could be extended up to 20 years if the amount of illegal narcotics is deemed to be “significant.”

Griner was playing basketball in the Russian Premier League for UMMC Ekaterinburg when, like all other foreign athletes, she had to leave the country due to the ongoing political tension caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner is the only player to remain in Russia as forces occupy Ukraine.

According to the Russian state news agency, TASS, Griner’s period of detention has been extended until May 19 while officials conduct an investigation. Resident advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Tom Firestone told the New York Times that delays in the penal system are common in Russia. Griner may be held without a trial for up to a year, but this period could be extended an additional six months.

The 31-year-old athlete is currently a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. She has won a championship with the Mercury, an NCAA championship at Baylor and two gold medals in 2016 and 2021 with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball team. According to ESPN, Griner is “one of the most recognizable players in women’s basketball.”

Delsie Johnson, 4-year forward on the LC women’s basketball team, said she heard about Griner’s detention a few weeks ago when the news first broke.

“At first I was shocked to find out that she was being detained in Russia,” Johnson said via email. “I also have not really seen or heard much about the situation on social media, especially with women’s sports outlets that I follow. I did some digging on this and people haven’t been making a big deal of it on social media because it could potentially escalate things with the US and Russian relation. I also think that if it was a male athlete in her position or even a white female athlete, there would be a lot more public attention and action being taken to get them back to the US.”

Women’s basketball in Europe and Asia has steadily grown in popularity since the 1970s. Teams are typically funded by large corporations or the government. Approximately half of all WNBA players compete internationally. There is usually a maximum number of American players allowed on teams overseas, however, many athletes obtain dual-citizenship in order to overcome this obstacle. Griner does not have Russian citizenship.

The appeal to and success of team ownership by private companies allows WNBA athletes to make much more money playing sports abroad compared to their U.S. salaries. Griner reportedly earns over $1 million per season, nearly quadrupling her WNBA salary. By comparison, the current salary for a WNBA player ranges from $60,471 to $228,094. Furthermore, the NBA offers a minimum salary of $925,000 and a maximum salary beginning at $28 million. In 2020, the WNBA and Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) agreed to a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement to raise the average salary to approximately $130,000, nearly $12,000 more than the maximum salary in 2019.

“I think the future for the WNBA is bright,” Johnson said. “Lately, it seems like more and more male athletes are using their platform to show their support of WNBA athletes and women basketball players in general … The women’s college basketball tournament this year, which is still ongoing, has seen significant increases in viewership compared to last year, and this just shows how women’s basketball is getting to be more popular in the public eye.”

Russian oligarchs play a critical role in the operation of off-season teams. UMMC Ekaterinburg is owned by the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company and is headed by owner Iskander Makhmudov and CEO Andrei Kozitsyn. While normally highly influential in matters of government and commerce, oligarchs and their bureaucratic operations have been challenged by current political tensions in Russia.

“I think the concern is, if it becomes too high-profile, if it becomes political, then the Russian government may dig into their position,” Firestone said to ESPN, “It may make it difficult for her to get a good resolution of the case, and she could become a pawn in a bigger political battle.”

In 2019, an Israeli woman was arrested in Russia for the possession of cannabis. Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to use the case as a means of negotiating Russian control of an area in Jerusalem, but the Russian government denied any link. The woman was subsequently pardoned.

Griner’s legal team is headed by Alexander Boykov. Boykov has argued that Russian officials illegally detained the American athlete, holding her for approximately 16 hours after she was detained at 11 a.m. Additionally, the defense argues that prosecutors delayed charging Griner and providing her with a defense team. For these reasons, Boykov believes Griner should be able to await trial while on house arrest. The women’s basketball team in Ekaterinburg also supplied letters vouching for Griner’s character.

More recently, after over three weeks of detainment, Griner was finally granted access to representatives from the U.S. embassy.

“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,” USA Basketball said in a statement after Griner’s arrest.

The WNBA, the Phoenix Mercury, the WNBPA and several U.S. politicians and celebrities have made statements about her detainment. Overall, little information has been released about Griner’s case for what the State Department describes as privacy considerations. With consulate access leading up to May 19, more updates about the case are expected.

“This situation with Brittney Griner reminds me of some other situations. The one that comes to mind first is with Sha’Carri Richardson who wasn’t able to go to the Tokyo Olympics because of a positive test for marijuana,” Johnson said. “I think because she is a female person of color, the situation and how she was viewed as an athlete definitely turned down a different path than if this kind of situation happened to someone who was white or even a male athlete.”

Griner has been very open about her sexuality as a professional athlete, coming out during her rookie year in 2013. Some worry this may cause further harm in her case due to Russia’s legislative and social discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

Laurel Marchant ’22 has also played on the LC women’s basketball team for the past four years as a point guard and agrees that the treatment of women, particularly LGBTQ+ women, in professional sports has substantial room for improvement.

“I was a social media intern for a clothing company that’s sole purpose is to promote female athletes and I found that on social media, many female athletes are constantly being sexualized and also many openly LGBT+ female athletes are being harassed,” Marchant said via email.

Johnson and Marchant share the desire for women to be better respected both in and beyond the realm of professional sports.

“I hope that women athletes can get the attention and praise they deserve in the media and in public opinion in general,” Johnson said. “I think young women who look up to female athletes in a sport they are interested in should be able to see the same kinds of things that a male athlete would see in players like Lebron James or Steph Curry, but female stars like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.”

The WNBA season is still set to begin on May 6.

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