Concerns for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was reportedly arrested in Russia last month on suspicion of illegally bringing drugs into the country, grew over the weekend amid heightened tensions over Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D), who represents Griner’s Houston hometown, called for the basketball star’s release over the weekend. “We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items, but let me be very clear,” she said at a public event Saturday, “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia … and I will be demanding her release.”
Griner’s Phoenix Mercury WNBA team was “closely monitoring the situation,” it said in a statement. “We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, asked for privacy as the situation unfolds. “I love my wife wholeheartedly,” she wrote on Instagram, “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.”
The timing of the arrest was unclear, beyond that it happened last month and there has been no communication from Griner, whose most recent social media post, on Instagram, was Feb. 5. But the news coincides with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the United States and other Western and NATO nations have enacted sanctions against Russia and have supported Ukraine with military equipment.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Sunday (via Reuters) that “privacy considerations” limited what he could say about possible efforts on Griner’s behalf, adding: “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia. 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.”
The State Department issued an advisory not to travel to Russia in response to the “unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine” and the possible “harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”
The department added that U.S. citizens should leave Russia immediately and that the embassy had “limited ability to assist U.S. citizens.”
All other WNBA players are out of Russia and Ukraine, according to a WNBA spokesperson. Several prominent WNBA stars are on the rosters of Russian teams, including Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones, Natasha Howard and Arike Ogunbowale.
“USA Basketball is aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia,” the organization said in a statement. “Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball and her safety and well-being are our primary concerns.”
The WNBA said in its own statement, “Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
Cannabis cartridges are devices that contain marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, in an oil form that can be inhaled by a component that heats the oil into a gaseous state.
Griner, the 31-year-old former Baylor star, is listed on the roster for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia and has played on the team for seven seasons. She is a seven-time WNBA all-star after being the No. 1 draft pick in 2013 and is one of the world’s most recognizable women’s basketball players.
Many women’s basketball players spend the offseason overseas to supplement their WNBA salaries. Griner, who is among the highest-paid players in the league, is set to have a base salary of $227,900 with the Mercury for the 2022 season.
“We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner,” the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S.”