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Brittney Griner's Detention in Russia Can Force the WNBA to Change

By Eva Haishun

It is May 17. Brittney Griner, a WNBA star player, is walking down the hall of the Khimkinsky court near Moscow. She is wearing a red plaid shirt with black sweatpants and gray running shoes. Griner, handcuffed to one of the female officers, briefly glances at the person behind the camera before disappearing into the courtroom. We get to see about 10 seconds of the basketball player before, hours later, the Russian News Agency, TASS, releases a statement that the court has ruled to extend the detention until May 19 after Griner pleaded not guilty. The concerns over the possible outcomes grow in the US media: all major news outlets, from CNN to the “New York Post” report on her arrest. But only a few raise the question that is floating on the surface: what was the WNBA star player doing in Russia in the first place?

Brittney Griner's Detention in Russia Can Force the WNBA to Change

In February, Brittney Griner was taken into custody at Sheremetyevo Airport (Moscow) for alleged drug-smuggling charges. She had arrived from New York to play for Russia’s premier basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she had played WNBA’s off-season since 2014. According to TASS, customs officers discovered vaping cartridges containing the hashish oil in her luggage. Even though the officials had arrested Griner on Feb. 17, the media broke the news about her apprehension two weeks later on March 5.

On March 24, the US Embassy in Russia released a “Do Not Travel” advisory and encouraged citizens to leave the country in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a result of the war, American-Russian relations have exponentially deteriorated, and, unfortunately to Brittney Griner, the implications may affect her: there are limited US consular representatives available in Russia who can assist on the case and the ones available have a priority to help the US citizens directly affected by war.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner arrested last month in Russia with drug-smuggling charges by Rick Scuteri.

Russia has not liberalized its policies against cannabis use, unlike the US. In fact, Russia is notoriously strict about enforcing the law in the field of narcotics. Hashish oil is a marijuana concentrate that contains a high concentration psychoactive ingredient, THC. The most common form of retaining comes in vape pens, like the ones found in Griner’s luggage. According to Tom Firestone, Griner’s attorney, the customs service has opened a criminal case into large-scale drug transportation; it can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He also added that the detention time so far is not unordinary given the charges. Regardless of the war status and US-Russian relations that add additional complications, the case has few chances to be resolved smoothly any time soon.

The US government representatives speak out about Griner’s case in general terms without mentioning her name. At a March press conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia.” He added, “We have an embassy team that’s working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia.”

A few other cases where US citizens have been detained in Russia and convicted of the crimes without credible evidence took place over the last few years. And so far, the US has not been able to negotiate their release with Russian officials. These cases include Paul Whelan (sentenced to 16 years for espionage) and Trevor Reed (sentenced to nine years for a drunken incident).

Last year after the Kremlin order to stop employing Russian citizens, the US Embassy in Moscow reduced its services by 75 percent. Even outside the current circumstance, such a reduction in staff results in delays related to consulate services. The Russian News Agency has claimed that the US consulate has not made attempts to meet with the detained basketball player. However, according to the representative Colin Allred, who is working on Griner’s release, consular requests have been denied. He said, “The fact that she’s been held since Feb. 17 and that the State Department has not been granted consular access, even though they’ve requested that, is very unusual and extremely concerning.” This example demonstrates how the relations between the countries are misaligned. There is a disparity of information from both sides where the US side claims they are doing their best to help Griner, and Russia’s side says that the US has done nothing. It also indicates that achieving consensus any time soon may be challenging.

Officials do not disclose the details of the case, and the family members of the star basketball player abstain from comments at the moment, so it is hard to jump to conclusions regarding the outcomes. It is clear that getting out on bail is hard in Russia for people charged with drug-related cases. It will be significantly more difficult for a non-citizen. Nevertheless, some issues that float on the surface can be pointed out regardless of the outcomes of the case. Griner has been playing for the Russian team since 2014 to earn more money from abroad. To a degree, all the time she was in Russia, her safety was in jeopardy due to anti-American sentiments in an authoritarian government; however, this premise was overlooked by the basketball league. In fact, over the years, there has not been any significant pay increase that would stop Brittney Griner from earning money in overseas teams. From that perspective, while Russian officials are to blame for her arrest, the basketball league was the one to put her in this position. The circumstances of her detention are unfortunate, but any other female player could repeat Griner’s fate unless the WNBA starts to prioritize the safety of its players. The league should work on finding additional investments to stop their female athletes from playing for foreign teams to sustain their income at risk of apprehension.

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