After nearly five months in Russian custody, the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7. She faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if she is convicted formally and sentenced. Her next court date is July 14.
Ms. Griner, 31, who has played for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury since 2013, was detained on Feb. 17 after the Russian authorities accused her of having hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Ms. Griner had been in Russia to compete for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team.
Her detention first became public on March 5. While fans immediately rallied around Ms. Griner on social media, her family and friends initially remained quiet about the situation out of fear that drawing attention to her would politicize the case. The United States and Russia have long had a tense relationship, and a week after Ms. Griner was detained Russia invaded Ukraine.
On May 3, the U.S. State Department said Ms. Griner had been “wrongfully detained” and that government officials who dealt with hostage affairs would work to secure her release. After the announcement, Ms. Griner’s family, friends and teammates began loudly proclaiming their support for her and urging the Biden administration to work to free her.
Russia accused Ms. Griner of a serious crime.
The Russian Federal Customs Service said that a sniffer dog had prompted it to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player at the airport near Moscow and that it had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency then identified the player as Brittney Griner.
Hashish oil is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the psychoactive chemical THC, and it is commonly sold in cartridges that are used in vape pens. The Russian Federal Customs Service said that customs officers had noticed vapes after scanning the traveler’s bag.
The customs service said that a criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, a charge that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
It released a video of a traveler who appeared to be Ms. Griner going through airport security with a trolley suitcase and a small backpack, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveler’s suitcase.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Ms. Griner was in Russia to play basketball. Many W.N.B.A. stars rely on income from overseas leagues.
Ms. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg for several years during the W.N.B.A. off-season. Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in April that Ms. Griner had been connecting in Moscow on the way to Yekaterinburg from the United States when she was detained.
Many American players compete with high-paying Russian teams: About 70 W.N.B.A. players decided to play with international teams instead of resting during the off-season this year, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. A W.N.B.A. spokeswoman said that all the others besides Ms. Griner had left Russia and Ukraine by March 5 with the war in Ukraine underway.
The financial incentives are compelling. W.N.B.A. players make a fraction of what their male counterparts do in the N.B.A. The maximum salary in 2022 for W.N.B.A. players is $228,094, while the top N.B.A. players are paid tens of millions of dollars.
International women’s teams, which tend to have more government and corporate financial support than those in the W.N.B.A., can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a season, and sometimes more than $1 million.
“While her detention has risen to the top of news for its geopolitical relevance,” Ms. Kagawa Colas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “at its underbelly lies a story of gender-pay disparity here in the United States.”
Ms. Griner is one of the best basketball players in the world. She won a W.N.B.A. championship with the Mercury in 2014 and has won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team.
The timing of the detention remains murky. Its political implications do, too.
It is still unclear whether Russia targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the United States, which has led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite during the war in Ukraine.
On May 3, the State Department said that Ms. Griner had been wrongfully detained but did not explain why it had made that determination. By American law, the designation obliges the secretary of state to transfer responsibility for the case to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs.
American officials have repeatedly accused Moscow of detaining U.S. citizens on doubtful pretexts.
“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens,” Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, wrote on Twitter on March 5, citing the case of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine whom a Russian court sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges of violence against police officers that his family and supporters described as fraudulent.
On the same day, the State Department released an updated advisory urging American citizens to leave Russia immediately given the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”
The release of an American raises hope.
The release of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia on April 27 brought fresh attention to the cases of other Americans who are still detained in Russia, including Ms. Griner.
In a briefing to reporters on April 28, American officials said that the administration remained focused on the release of Ms. Griner.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
Cherelle Griner posted on Instagram that her heart was “overflowing with joy for The Reed Family.”
“I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country,” she added.
Experts have said that the release of Mr. Reed was an encouraging sign that diplomatic efforts could still yield results despite the current level of hostility between Washington and Moscow.
The Kremlin appears interested in linking the fate of Ms. Griner to that of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. In that scenario, Moscow would look to do a deal with the Biden administration that would free both Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout.
Such an agreement would provide considerable obstacles for the Biden administration: The vast disparity between the cases means the president would be hard-pressed to justify the release of a villainous figure like Mr. Bout, and it would risk creating an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad.
Lara Jakes and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.