News broke Saturday morning that Russian customs officials detained WNBA star Brittney Griner sometime in February. Russian authorities claim Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow for having an illegal substance in her luggage.
According to the New York Times, Griner was detained after the Russian Federal Customs Service allegedly found vape cartridges with cannabis (hashish) oil in her luggage. She could face up to 10 years in prison.
The escalating tensions in the region could slow any diplomatic resolution for Griner. Speaking with Yamin Vossoughian on MSNBC, expert Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon said Griner was facing serious charges.
“These aren’t your typical possession misdemeanor charges,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “She is facing charges for large-scale transportation of narcotics.”
St. Julian-Varnon noted that there are two Americans Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed who are imprisoned in Russia. Both are former U.S. Marines serving 16-year and 9-year prison sentences respectively.
“We don’t know if she’s going to have to have a trial, and these things move slowly in Russia,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “We’re going to have to have some expedited diplomacy. But she has been held for at least 2-3 weeks. So we don’t actually know what has been going on behind the scenes.”
St. Julian-Varnon urged caution at speculation about the case so as to not make things more difficult for Griner. She also noted that being high profile, Black and queer could make things even more challenging for the basketball player.
Advocate and culture organizer Raquel Willis echoed similar concerns about Griner’s safety in the context of her being a queer Black woman.
“A Black queer woman has been held in Russia for almost a month,” tweeted Willis. “This is scary as hell. Unfortunately, Brittney Griner has become a major pawn in world leaders’ quest for domination.”
Various outlets, including Vanity Fair, have covered concerns about the treatment of LGBTQ people by Russia and concerns on the ground in Ukraine. Human Rights Watch previously called out Russia’s “gay propaganda” law as an example of political homophobia. A 2018 report described Russia as a “hostile climate” for LGBTQ people.
Others on Twitter expressed their shock that Griner has been detained for possibly weeks, with news only just now being made public. Professor Anthea Butler raised concern about whether Griner’s detention is a part of a more extensive play by Russia.
“I hate to say this, but we are not going to see Brittney Griner for awhile,” tweeted Butler. “Whether she had vape pens or not, this is a power play by Russia, and expect more of this as this war w Ukraine goes on.”
Standing at 6 foot 9 inches, Griner has played overseas on the Russian UMMC Ekaterinburg team for the past several seasons. Many WNBA players have spent time overseas in the offseason because of the opportunity to earn more money.
The pay disparity between WNBA and NBA players has been a conversation for years, with women’s players getting only a fraction of the economic benefits of their male counterparts.
This year will mark Griner’s tenth year in the WNBA. She helped the Mercury snag a championship in 2014. According to her WNBA profile, she’s been named the league’s defensive player of the year in 2014 and 2015. She also has been a member of the all-star team six times.
The Phoenix Mercury said they were “closely monitoring” the situation in a statement posted to Twitter.
“We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia,” the statement read. “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.”