U.S. State Department considers WNBA star Brittney Griner wrongfully detained
All-star centre remains detained in Russia with hearing set for May 19
The Biden administration has determined WNBA star Brittney Griner is being wrongfully detained in Russia, meaning the United States will more aggressively work to secure her release even as the legal case against her plays out, the State Department said Tuesday.
"The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner," the department said.
Griner was detained at an airport in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Since then, U.S. officials had stopped short of classifying the Phoenix Mercury player as wrongfully detained and said instead that their focus was on ensuring that she had access in jail to American consular affairs officials.
Now, though, U.S. officials have shifted supervision of her case to a State Department section — the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — that is focused on negotiating for the release of hostages and other Americans classified as being wrongfully detained in other countries. A consular officer did visit in March.
"Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," said Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas.
The president of the WNBA players' union, Nneka Ogwumike, noted in a separate statement that "it has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia."
"It is time for her to come home," Ogwumike added. "Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful."
The WNBA released a statement Tuesday night saying: "Today's news on Brittney Griner is a positive development and a next step to getting her home. The WNBA is in constant communication with the U.S. government on Brittney's case, working together to get her home safe and as soon as possible."
It was unclear what prompted the shift in approach to Griner's case, though President Joe Biden's administration had been under pressure from members of Congress and others to make her release a priority.
"We just want her home. I'm glad that they are trying to do something," said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who previously coached Griner in Phoenix. "They had that prisoner release last week that gave me hope that BG would be one of the next ones out. I can't imagine what she's going through. Hopefully she'll be out sooner than later."
Brondello was happy with the league's creation of the decal.
"There's not a day I don't think about BG. I was trying to message with her family yesterday. She's in everyone's mind," she said. "She can't be forgotten. She means so much to so many people. I coached her for a long time and she's like family. I think it's a great step."
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Besides Griner, another American regarded as unjustly detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan who was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend's wedding and was later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus.
ESPN first reported the classification in Griner's case.
Meanwhile, the WNBA announced Tuesday that it would honour Griner with a floor decal and allow the Mercury to pay her without it counting against the team's cap. The decal will feature Griner's initials, BG, as well as her No. 42.
All 12 teams will have the decal on their home courts starting with the season opener Friday night. The Mercury open their season at home that night against the Las Vegas Aces.
Griner had one of her best seasons last year — she was the league's second-leading scorer and finished sixth in rebounds. She helped the Mercury reach the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.
"As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. "We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time."
The league also approved giving the Mercury both roster and salary cap relief so that they can carry a replacement player until Griner returns home. Griner will be paid her full salary of nearly $228,000.
Engelbert announced at the WNBA draft that there would be a league-wide charity initiative spearheaded by the Mercury to support Griner's philanthropic project, called BG's Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, which helps the homeless.