Sports

The low-profile, high-powered race to free WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian custody

"This case should not be political. It should be handled on a legal basis, and we're hoping to keep it in that realm."

United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots during a preliminary round women's basketball game against Nigeria at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on July 27, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Eric Gay/AP Photo


Less than 11 months ago, American basketball star Brittney Griner towered over her UMMC Ekaterinburg teammates as the Russian franchise celebrated its third consecutive EuroLeague Women’s championship. In one picture from the joyous aftermath, Griner, her gold medal around her neck, smiles mischievously from the floor as she makes snow angels in the confetti raining down from the rafters.

The most recent public picture of Griner, however, shows a starkly different scene: In a mug shot released by Russian state media over the weekend, Griner, 31, is standing expressionless against a wall in a building and a locale that both remain unknown. Her 6-foot-8 frame tops out above the height chart over her left shoulder. In her hands, she holds an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper with her name on it.

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Little more is known now about Griner’s whereabouts and safety, at least publicly, than when news first broke last week of her arrest and detainment by Russian authorities, which occurred after customs officials allegedly found cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport outside Moscow.

In a telephone interview Thursday, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Tex., said Griner’s arrest occurred Feb. 17, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which means she has been in Russian custody for more than three weeks. She’s accused of illegal crossing of a border with illegal narcotics, which in Russia can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Allred said she has not been allowed visits from U.S. Embassy personnel.

“The fact we’ve requested consular access and it has not been granted is very unusual and extremely concerning,” Allred said, accusing Russia of “violating international norms.”

Griner’s family, her agents, officials from the WNBA and the Phoenix Mercury and top U.S. government officials have been mostly silent about her situation — a stance that, according to experts on Russian-American relations and people familiar with the case, is a strategic one, likely being dictated by a crisis communications firm. A high-profile media campaign for her release, the thinking goes, would only make her situation worse by adding value to her in the eyes of the Russian authorities.

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Griner’s representatives “should consider whether maintaining a low profile and just trying to fight the case through the legal system might be the best option,” said Tom Firestone, a partner at Stroock Stroock & Lavan and former resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

But this much is obvious: With U.S.-Russian relations at their most strained since the Cold War, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the United States and its NATO allies on Russia, it is a very dangerous time to be an American, particularly one with as high a profile as Griner, trapped in Russia.

“This case should not be political. It should be handled on a legal basis, and we’re hoping to keep it in that realm,” said Allred, who played football for Baylor University, where Griner was a national champion and Associated Press player of the year in 2012. “Of course, this is taking place against the backdrop of extremely strained relations when Russia is extremely isolated from the rest of the world.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that U.S. officials are “doing everything we can” to help Griner.

“There’s only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point,” Blinken said. Asked for further clarity on Griner’s situation on Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson referred back to Blinken’s comments.

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At the heart of Griner’s situation is the question of whether she actually tried to smuggle hashish oil into Russia — where she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg the past six seasons — or whether, as some American experts suggest, she could have been targeted and framed for the crime because of her highly visible public profile as a Black, gay American who is also an outspoken activist on racial and LGBTQ+ issues.

“I can’t say definitively she didn’t [do the crime], but the first thought I had when I read about [the arrest] is this sounds like [the Russians] taking an American hostage,” said Daniel Fried, the Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and formerly the U.S. ambassador to Poland under President Bill Clinton and assistant secretary of state for Europe under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they would do that — plant drugs and grab her. The American embassy and the U.S. government has been aware of the possibility of the Russians using Americans in Moscow . . . as bargaining chips. It would be just like the Russians to do this — pick somebody, make a case. Unless there is actual evidence [implicating Griner], which would frankly surprise me, I would regard this as a political case, and I feel badly for this person who is caught up in it.”

Asked about Griner’s culpability and the possibility she was framed, Allred said, “I really don’t know. I think the Russian criminal system is very different than ours and is very opaque. We’ve seen trumped up charges against other Americans . . . So if it were to occur, it wouldn’t be the first time in history.”

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Griner’s case has also opened an uncomfortable window into the economics of elite women’s basketball in the United States. From an American-centric viewpoint, Griner’s tenure for UMMC Ekaterinburg — named for the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, the owners of which also own the team, and the central Russian city where it is located — is typically described as the overseas side-gig that occupies her during her offseason for the WNBA’s Mercury.

But for Griner and other top Americans in the WNBA, the converse is more accurate. By most objective measures, UMMC Ekaterinburg – which has a longer season and pays Griner as much as five times in salary what the Mercury pays her – is her main employer, and the WNBA an offseason side-gig. About half of all WNBA players head overseas at the conclusion of each WNBA season, in many cases earning more than the WNBA maximum salary of $228,094. (By comparison, the highest-paid player in the NBA, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, is earning $45.78 million this season, according to basketball-reference.com.)

Even by the standards of European basketball, UMMC Ekaterinburg, controlled by Russian billionaire owner Iskander Makhmudov and CEO Andrei Kozitsyn, is a deep-pocketed powerhouse. In 2015, it persuaded superstar Diana Taurasi to skip the WNBA season to rest and stay fresh for its own season, and its 2021-22 roster included five WNBA all-stars in Griner, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones.

“The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes it toll,” Taurasi wrote in an open letter to WNBA fans in 2015 about her decision to skip that WNBA season, “and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down. They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take of myself and my family when I am done playing.”

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The influence of team owners Makhmudov and Kozitsyn, often described as oligarchs, could be among Griner’s biggest assets during this ordeal, and could also help explain the relative silence from her family and representatives.

“She’s not a tourist there. She’s working and living in Russia and probably paying Russian taxes. She has a network there that needs to be mobilized, including the oligarchs who pay her salary and probably know her personally at some level,” said David Szakonyi, an assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University and an expert on corruption in Russia. “That may be why her camp is staying quiet and working those backchannels.”

According to game data on the EuroLeague website, Griner last played for UMMC Ekaterinburg on Jan. 29, scoring 15 points in an 89-52 win over Hungary’s KSC Szekszard. Six days earlier, the U.S. State Department had issued a Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory for Russia, warning of the potential for “harassment against U.S. citizens” and “the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.”

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams — which bounced UMMC Ekaterinburg out of the league’s playoffs — and U.S. and WNBA officials began pulling its players out of the country.

“Just landed in Turkey and all I want to do is cry,” Jones, a Bahamian-born center for the Connecticut Sun and the reigning WNBA MVP, posted on Twitter on March 2. “That situation was way more stressful than I realized.”

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All but one American made it out: Unbeknown to the rest of the world, by the time of the invasion, Griner had already spent a week in Russian custody.

The Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy contributed to this report.

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