Brittney Griner's 'unimaginable situation' in Russia: What we know about WNBA star's case

Mark Faller
Arizona Republic

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury has been under arrest in Russia since mid-February on drug charges. She's been detained for going on four months and there has been scant movement toward getting her released.

In fact, the duration of her detention has been extended. On Friday May 13, Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boykov, told The Associated Press her pre-trial detention in Russia had been extended by one month.

Then later on Friday, several reports from Russian state media indicated there might be an initial asking price for Griner's return to the U.S. As reported first by Yahoo, Russia is said to be looking to exchange Griner in a prisoner swap for convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose nickname is the "Merchant of Death." Yahoo said these reports were attributed to unnamed Russian government sources.

Meanwhile, the WNBA season is under way and Mercury have come to terms with not knowing when, or if, Griner will be able to rejoin them. And more important, Griner's family and friends continue their private vigils hoping for the best possible outcome.

On May 3, there was the first hint of change. The U.S. Department of State reportedly reclassified Griner as being "wrongfully detained," meaning a special presidential envoy will become directly involved in leading an interagency team toward securing her release.

On Saturday May 14, USA Today reported that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who played a major role in freeing former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in April and has a long history of helping free detainees from hostile foreign governments, is now working with Griner’s family to bring the WNBA All-Star home.

"You don't get these Americans released for free," Richardson told CNN. "There's always a price." 

Here's a rundown of other things to know about the Griner situation:

WNBA players: Support Brittney Griner by not playing in authoritarian nations

In a column posted on May 6 by USA Today, Lindsay Schnell writes that the best way for Griner's peers in the WNBA to pay tribute is to vow to no longer play in authoritarian countries in the offseason — because that's what led to this situation in the first place.

"WNBA players are known for being passionately outspoken and active when it comes to social justice issues — shouldn't that extend to other countries?," Schnell wrote.

“We’ve been going over there with our blinders on,” Mike Cound, a longtime agent who represents dozens of WNBA and professional players, told Schnell. “I’m just as guilty as (any other agent). We’ve all been sending people over there knowing who (Russian Federation President Vladimir) Putin is. We keep sending players because the money has been so good and Putin was just masking the monster that he is. It’s an ethical dilemma, a gray area.”

It's been widely reported that the reason WNBA players go overseas in the offseason is because they can make many times what their domestic league's team will pay. 

"But everything has a cost, and right now, we have an opportunity to weigh what is and isn’t worth it," Schnell writes. "Should we really be sending players to countries where human rights are an afterthought?"

Schnell quotes Kelsey Plum, the WNBA 2021 Sixth Woman of the Year who spent this offseason in Turkey, as saying, "I've gotta be honest with you, I don't know. Time will give us the answer. I think it's so up in the air right now. (There are) so many variables that go into a decision about playing overseas. Everyone should have a right to make the decision that's best for them."

Where does the WNBA stand with Brittney Griner?

In an interview on May 5 that was aired on SiriusXM Radio's NBA channel, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called the State Department move "a very positive development, one we've been working on for a while. Certainly a next step in getting her home. Because now we have some more options now that she has been designated wrongfully detained. So again, we just continue to have those regular conversations with the U.S. government."

Engelbert also told interviewer Holly Rowe "there's not a day that goes by that I don't spend time on this. And obviously with her whole family and her agent and the government. ... Now that she's been in this new designation you will see more players, us and everybody, talk about making sure we can get her home, but also recognizing and acknowledging her importance to the league and her philanthropic initiatives also, modeled after her contributions to the Phoenix community, around her Heart and Soul shoe drive and some other things we're planning.

"So again, I think it's something where, as I've said, it's an unimaginable situation to be in, but we're doing everything we can. And I think we will start to talk about it more as she goes through the next steps in the process.”

What is the WNBA doing to honor Brittney Griner and assist the Mercury?

Before the season began, the WNBA announced the Mercury will be granted both roster and salary cap relief until Griner returns and is ready to play. The Mercury can carry a replacement player and Griner will be paid her full salary in the meantime.

That news came just after the WNBA said it plans to honor the Mercury center this season with a decal on every court across the league. The decal will read "BG" and container her number, 42.

Moore:From coach to players, and without Griner, much about the Mercury is new

Said Engelbert in the SiriusXM interview: "So why we did the initials and jersey number, you know, it's we want to balance between acknowledging Brittany's amazing contributions to our league and to her community, and also the fact that we miss her."

Previously, the WNBA confirmed commitment from all 12 teams to honor Griner with charity initiatives. The Mercury will carry out Griner’s shoe drive at all home games this season.  

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

Why was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Like many WNBA stars including Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years in the winter, earning more than $1 million per season — more than quadruple her WNBA salary. She last played for her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg on Jan. 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments. She was arrested in Moscow upon returning to Russia.

Why is Brittney Griner being held in Russia?

Russian authorities claimed a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges. They were identified as containing oil derived from cannabis. That means Griner could be facing up to 10 years of prison time.

On March 17, the Russian state news agency Tass reported that a Moscow court extended Griner's detainment until at least May 19.

“The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19,” the court said, according to Tass.

More:U.S.-Russian prisoner exchange a reminder of Brittney Griner's absence from Mercury

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner sits during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's WNBA Finals against the Chicago Sky, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Phoenix. Griner is easily the most prominent American citizen known to be jailed by a foreign government.

What other steps have been taken to free Brittney Griner?

Nothing direct so far, but there have been related developments that raised hope.

On April 27, U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was released by Russia in a prisoner exchange after being held since the summer of 2019. Russian authorities said Reed assaulted an officer while being driven to a police station after a night of heavy drinking. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

In the Associated Press account, it was unclear if Reed's release will have any bearing on Griner's case. It seems unlikely to have any immediate impact in part because the Biden administration played down the idea of a broader rapprochement with Moscow at a time when Russia is at war with Ukraine.

Earlier, when news of Griner's extended detainment broke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department is “in very active contact” with the Mercury, WNBA, her attorneys and other representatives in an effort to secure her release in Russia. 

The circumstances of Griner's arrest and detainment remain shrouded in mystery. No new details have emerged from Russia, and with U.S. authorities working behind the scenes not much new information has been disclosed here, either.

Almost certainly working against Griner is her status as a prominent gay, Black woman in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community.

"There are many countries around the world where you do not want to get in trouble, and Russia is one of them," Clarence Lusane, a Howard University political science professor who specializes in criminal justice and drug policy, told the AP.

More:Months after Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner's arrest, mystery surrounds her case

Where is Brittney Griner from?

Griner is from Houston, Texas. 

She played college basketball at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft.

—The Republic's Jenna Ortiz contributed to this report.

Mark Faller is sports editor of the Arizona Republic and Reach him at, and follow him on Twitter @falleraz.

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