What We Know About Brittney Griner's Arrest In Russia

Brittney Griner is one of the biggest names in women's basketball, but the seven-time WNBA All-Star is caught in the middle of international controversy. During the WNBA off-season, Griner — like many WNBA players — goes overseas to play and has spent several off-seasons playing for Russian club ​​UMMC Ekaterinburg. However, in February 2022, while Griner was still overseas, Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, a decision that drew widespread condemnation from the rest of the world.

That same month, with international tensions rising, Griner attempted to return to the United States, but at the airport, she was arrested and charged with what the Russian Customs Service called "large-scale transportation of drugs," per The New York Times. Russian authorities did not reveal the exact date of Griner's arrest, and in fact, her identity as the player detained wasn't revealed until her wife, the WNBA, and her WNBA team (the Phoenix Mercury) all confirmed that it was Griner.

Who is Brittney Griner?

Brittney Griner is a towering presence on the basketball court at 6 feet, 9 inches tall (via Basketball Reference). Greiner was born on October 18, 1990, in Houston, Texas. She played college basketball at Baylor University and became one of the most decorated collegiate basketball players in history. According to the Baylor Bears website, Griner amassed a staggering 3,283 points, 1,305 rebounds, and 748 blocks over her four years at Baylor. Her 748 blocks are the most in college basketball history, men's or women's. She also led Baylor to an NCAA Championship and received numerous player of the year honors throughout her college career.

After leaving Baylor, Griner was selected first overall by the Phoneix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft. In nine seasons with the team, Griner has racked up nearly 4,500 points, over 700 blocked shots, and 463 total assists.

Why was she playing in Russia?

While only a small portion of athletes wind up playing professionally, an even smaller number make the type of money many people associate with professional athletes. According to NBC Sports, the league's latest collective bargaining agreement puts the average WNBA player salary at $130,000, while the league's top players can earn more than $500,000 per season. Though this is a significant amount of money, it still pales in comparison to what male players make in the NBA.

One of the options WNBA players have is spending their offseasons abroad playing in leagues around the world. That's what Griner has done since she started her professional career, opting to play in Russia over the winter months. The salary players earn overseas is usually what makes them willing to give up their offseason. According to NPR, in 2015, WNBA star Diana Taurasi was paid $1.5 million per year to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the same team that Griner plays for. Coincidentally, that club's owner, Iskander Makhmudov, has been under fire for alleged ties to Vladimir Putin.

What happened at the airport?

According to Russian authorities, Brittney Griner was passing through an airport near Moscow when a drug-sniffing dog alerted its handler to something in the WNBA All-Star's luggage. 

"As a U.S. citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage," the statement from Russian authorities said (via CNN). "The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the U.S. citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance."

Griner was arrested, and according to a tweet from CNN, her mugshot was shown on Russian television. A Russian official was quoted as saying, "A criminal case has been opened against an American citizen for smuggling a significant amount of drugs." According to The New York Times, Griner is the only WNBA player still in Russia or Ukraine — all others were able to leave those countries.

What is Griner charged with?

According to Sports Illustrated, the substance that got Brittney Griner in trouble was hashish oil, a concentrated form of marijuana commonly used in vape cartridges. Russian officials specifically said that their investigation was looking into "large-scale transportation of drugs," charges that could carry a 10-year prison sentence.

According to The New York Times, it's unknown whether or not Russian authorities intentionally targeted Griner. Still, others are fairly convinced that she was targeted. "This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning U.S. citizens, including Trevor Reed," U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro tweeted. "U.S. citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned."

Trevor Reed is a former United States Marine and another American citizen detained in Russia. He has been imprisoned by Russian authorities since 2019 on alleged assault charges, according to The Texas Tribune. In 2020, U.S. Representative August Pfluger alleged that Russia had increased the severity of Reed's charges upon learning of his veteran status. "Trevor was initially detained for public intoxication, but when the Russian Federal Security Service discovered that he was a U.S. Marine, they upped the charges and accused him of endangering the lives of police officers," Rep. Pfluger said.

The reaction to her arrest

Brittney Griner's arrest was met with significant outrage from some United States officials, including U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a representative from Griner's home state of Texas, who called the charges "false" (via Fox News). Lee was quoted as saying, "You wonder, what is the evil purpose of Putin's government to have her at this time." She continued by saying that Griner and all other Americans detained by Russia need to be released immediately.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States government would do what it can to return Griner to her home country. "There's only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point. 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 said, per Fox News. "We have an embassy team that's working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We're doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected."

According to The New York Times, the WNBA released a statement saying that Griner has the league's "full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States."