Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia, briefly explained

A young Phoenix Mercury fan holds up a “Free Brittney Griner” sign during a WNBA basketball game against the Las Vegas Aces on May 6 in Phoenix, Arizona. | Darryl Webb/AP

What could it take to bring the WNBA superstar home?

Brittney Griner is arguably the WNBA’s biggest star and one of the best basketball players of all time. Standing at 6 foot 9, her prowess on and off the court is hard to miss.

“She is like nobody who has ever played and she has dominated every level she’s ever been,” ESPN investigative reporter TJ Quinn says on Vox’s daily news explainer podcast, Today, Explained. “And then she’s also become kind of a cultural icon as well. For her sexuality, for her struggles with mental health issues. She’s become someone who really is more than an athlete to the people who follow her.”

But like many WNBA players, the lack of equitable pay drew her to playing in Russia — where she is now detained after Moscow airport security found cannabis oil in her luggage. Now, the US State Department is turning up the heat to free Griner. This episode of Today, Explained explores what it might take to bring her home. A partial transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

TJ Quinn

Brittney Griner is one of the greatest players in the history of her game. She was the best high school player in the country. She signed with Baylor, won a national title there, All-American, the No. 1 overall draft pick in the WNBA when she went professional, perennial All-Star. What stands out is her size. And she plays a sort of physical, dominant game, both defensively and offensively, that stands out. But she also dunks in games, which is not common in the WNBA.

Sean Rameswaram

So it’s fair to say that she’s one of the best players in the WNBA.

TJ Quinn

One of the best players in basketball history.

Sean Rameswaram

What is one of the best players in basketball history doing in Russia?

TJ Quinn

The women who play in the WNBA, which is the highest level of basketball played in that sport, can only make a few hundred thousand dollars at the most. There’s a hard salary cap for what they can make. There are limited marketing opportunities for women who play professional basketball. But in Russia, as in a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East, she’s able to make more than a million dollars playing for one of the teams there that’s owned by oligarchs. So there’s this long history of WNBA players making something that would be a good salary for most people, but really low for someone of their skill, going to Russia, Turkey, where they make much higher salaries. And so she has been spending her off season making three or four — sometimes five — times the salary she could make in the US by playing in Russia.

Sean Rameswaram

So let’s talk about how Brittney Griner ends up being detained in Russia. Where does that story start?

TJ Quinn

That starts February 17 when she flew over there, as she has many times, and landed at the airport outside of Moscow.

You watch in the video that customs officials released, and she’s just going through the baggage check like normal. And then she gets pulled out of the line. What happens after that is in dispute.

She actually has not said one way or the other, nor have her representatives. And from that time on, she was in custody, but there was no attention to it in this country. Russia didn’t announce it. They kept a very low profile. Her representatives were almost immediately in contact with the US State Department. And the advice that the State Department gave them was, “Look, you need to keep a low profile right now. There are two directions this can go. Russia has, nominally at least, a criminal justice system. It is quite demonstrably corrupt and subject to the rule of one man, Vladimir Putin and his government, but there is one and it does operate. And until they have some idea of how she’s being treated, it’s better for you to keep a low profile.” Because the other path is, if she becomes too valuable, if there’s a ton of attention to her, well, then she’s a potential asset to Putin and his government for something that they want to trade for. And that was not the road you wanted to be on.

They followed the State Department’s advice and kept a very low profile until about three weeks later, in early March, Russian customs officials did announce it. And when in this country we heard that she had been detained, there was this media response: “Wait a second. How can one of the world’s best athletes have been in detention for more than two weeks and nobody knew about it?” And that was intentional.

They really wanted to keep a low profile. She’s got lawyers over there trying to see, “Can we work this out through the criminal justice system?” And then when you had a number of members of Congress and prominent athletes raising the issue of “If this were a male athlete, if this was LeBron James or somebody, people would be going out of their minds!” The people who support Brittney Griner lament the inequities in women’s sports in this country. But in this one case, here’s where it worked to their advantage, because they felt like, “Okay, let’s just keep quiet as long as we can, see if we can work this out.” Because if she becomes essentially a hostage to Putin, then you’re in a whole new world.

Sean Rameswaram

As I recall, because this was happening so close to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it felt like Russia maybe was trying to get a little leverage on the United States, potentially, by detaining this star athlete for having hashish oil on her.

TJ Quinn

It’s entirely possible. And people who follow Russia immediately thought of the fact that there is a well-established history of Russian law enforcement planting drugs on people in order to arrest them. This is what they do. And even though the war hadn’t started, the invasion hadn’t started yet on February 17, they knew it was coming. So for those inclined to think this was a setup, the pieces were there. There’s Russia’s history of doing that.

The fact that she’s high-profile, easily identifiable, the fact that she’s also a 6 foot 9 Black lesbian, which in Putin’s Russia is a warning to all good Russian mothers — “Look what will happen to your children if you liberalize like the West” — they knew that the motivation was there and that she was potentially a chip to trade for something if they wanted it.

But there are also a number of people who say: “Well, wait a second, they’re not making a big deal out of this. They arrested her. It’s entirely possible that she did do it. And just because they’re politicizing it or that they may be willing to trade for her doesn’t mean that, necessarily, she didn’t actually commit the crime she was accused of. Who knows?” But you know, what’s become clear to the US government at some point is that Russia is open for business and that they don’t need to wait a year for her to go to trial — you can hold someone in pretrial detention for a year over there — that it’s time to start moving.

Sean Rameswaram

So mum’s the word when everyone finds out. But now here we are, almost 80 days later. Do we know what Brittney’s experience has been? Has she been able to speak out about this publicly?

TJ Quinn

She hasn’t at all. The only connection to her has been her representatives to her lawyers. US consular officials were able to visit her back in March and reported that she was okay. What I’m hearing from people around her is that she’s good, considering. I mean, she’s in jail in a foreign country. She doesn’t speak the language. Supposedly, there are people around her who do speak English. She has reading material. There were reports that it was tough to find a bed to fit her, which would make sense — she is 6 foot 9 — and that she’s doing okay, considering. But there’s no way to independently verify that.

Just imagine showing up for the start of a season and the biggest player in the game is not there. You can’t just pretend all of a sudden that Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or somebody just isn’t there. And it’s been tough for players who’ve wanted to speak out more, but now they know that they have some freedom to start doing that.

You saw some incremental increase in how much they were talking about her. At the WNBA draft a few weeks ago, the first statement out of the commissioner’s mouth was about Brittney Griner. And just last week, there was a discussion about putting a decal on the floor of games. And these are all deliberate. It’s all strategic to slowly start to ramp up the amount of attention that her case is getting.

Sean Rameswaram

And the US government’s now talking about her, too.

TJ Quinn

That was the big change. The people around her were just sort of waiting for permission or a sign that now it’s time to really start speaking out.

When you talk about protests, you’ve got to think about: who is it that you’re actually protesting, or are you trying to create public pressure against Vladimir Putin? Because that’s probably not going to work. This is somebody who launched an invasion, united much of the world against him, has been hit with the biggest sanctions in geopolitical history, and that didn’t change him. So it seems unlikely that a hashtag is going to influence what he does.

The real pressure that they want to create is with the US government — to try to force the White House and the State Department to make her a priority, to cut a deal and get her home. And that’s where you see some tension. The families of Brittney Griner and former US Marine Trevor Reed — who was [detained in Russia] for more than two years and just came home — have one goal, and that’s to get their loved ones home.

The US government has multiple goals. It’s trying to one, get those Americans back, two, not create a precedent that they fear is going to put more Americans in danger by creating an incentive. And three, serve larger geopolitical interests. So what [the families] want to do is put as much pressure on the US government as they can. And the feeling that if they can put this in the forefront of Joe Biden’s mind … it does a lot of good if the president of the United States, or Ron Klain, his chief of staff, is calling over to the State Department saying, “What’s going on?” That might be the sort of pressure that moves things along.

Listen to the full episode of Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts.