US reclassifies WNBA star Brittney Griner to be 'wrongfully detained' by Russia

The U.S. State Department confirmed to USA TODAY Sports Tuesday afternoon that it has reclassified Brittney Griner as being "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government, as first reported by ESPN.com.

Griner, the All-Star center of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, was arrested and detained in February after the Russian Federal Customs Service said they found vape cartridges with cannabis oil cartridges in her carry-on luggage. A drug smuggling charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

A state department spokesman confirmed Griner's reclassification, adding that "the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S. Government" and said it will "continue to undertake efforts to prove appropriate support to Ms. Griner." The spokesman declined to give details on how the State Department reached the conclusion that Griner was wrongfully detained. 

Brittany Griner is set to have a hearing on May 19.

The new designation by the government could mean a shift in strategy to get Griner home. She is set to have a hearing May 19.

Also, former Gov. Bill Richardson is working on behalf of Griner's family, at their request, to secure Griner's safe return. Previously, Richardson and his non-profit, non-government organization helped secure the release of former Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in Russia for almost three years. Reed was released in a prisoner swap last week. According to the Richardson Center, the former governor has negotiated the release of more than 20 prisoners and hostages, including American military members and journalists. 

Through spokesman Mickey Bergman, Richardson declined to comment directly about Griner's situation, with Bergman saying, "due to ongoing efforts and sensitivities, we are focused on working rather than talking at this time." 

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Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBPA, wrote on Twitter Tuesday, "It has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained, we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful." 

In a statement to ESPN, Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said "Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home." 

Meanwhile, the league continues to monitor the situation in Russia and support Griner as they will continue to pay her full salary. 

Starting with the season opener Friday, Griner’s initials and jersey number will be featured on the sideline of every WNBA court. 

“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.  “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”