Out WNBA Star Brittney Griner Detained in Russia

Olympics: Basketball-Women Semifinal – USA-SRB
Team USA’s Brittney Griner commands the court during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 6, 2021
USA Today Sports/Kareem Elgazzar

Out lesbian WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport last month for possession of vape cartridges with marijuana oil, fueling fears over her safety at a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further damaged the relationship between the United States and Russia.

Griner, who has spent her entire WNBA career with the Phoenix Mercury, was passing through security at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport when a working dog allegedly sniffed out vape cartridges, according to Russia’s Federal Customs Service. Tass, a Russian state media outlet known for disseminating a barrage of nonsensical propaganda, identified that individual as Griner on March 5.

“The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the US 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,” the Russian government said in a statement. The allegations against Griner have not been independently verified.

Russian authorities released a video showing Griner at the security checkpoint. It remains unclear when exactly Griner was arrested or how long she has been held.

She is facing up to a decade behind bars on drug charges.

The WNBA star is the latest American to face a harsh punishment in Russia following a pair of high-profile detainments in recent years. In 2020, former US Marine Paul Whelan — who is also a British, Irish, and Canadian citizen — was hit with a nine-year prison sentence for allegedly assaulting two police officers, while Trevor Reed, another former Marine, was sentenced to 16 years behind bars for alleged espionage.

Reed’s family has long denied the accusations against him and Whelan has maintained his innocence, saying the Federal Security Service — which is the modern-day version of the KGB — deliberately set him up. Whelan’s family has accused Russian authorities of denying his medical treatment.

Concerns over Russia’s treatment of American prisoners are compounded by the Kremlin’s aggressive crackdown on LGBTQ rights since President Vladimir Putin approved a 2013 gay propaganda law. Out queer people in Russia have complained of harassment, stalking, and abuse from authorities.

American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Moldova alongside President Maia Sandu on March 6, responded to Griner’s arrest by vowing “to provide every possible assistance” to any American detained in the world, including in Russia, though he said he hesitated to provide much information about Griner’s case due to privacy reasons.

“We have an embassy team that’s working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia,” Blinken said. “We’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, issued a public statement on Instagram on March 6.

“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia,” the note stated. “Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely. Thank you!”

In a follow-up post on March 7, Cherelle said it has been difficult to “stay busy” and worry about her wife at the same time.

“My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by,” she said. “I miss your voice. I miss your presence. You’re our person! There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told ESPN Griner’s team is “in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA.”

“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern,” Colas noted.

According to ESPN, WNBA players have been leaving Russia in droves in recent days. The US State Department has been warning Americans to leave Russia since the beginning of the year when the Kremlin ramped up its military presence on Ukraine’s border.

Griner, who has been named a WNBA all-star seven times, won a WNBA title in 2014 and most recently received her second Olympic gold medal as part of the undefeated American team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.