When Brittney Griner is on the basketball court, everyone knows. At 6ft 9in, she towers over most other players. She snatches rebounds over her opponents' outstretched arms, and her team-mates know the surest way to score: deliver the ball to her.
Since the Phoenix Mercury drafted Griner number one overall in 2013, she has become one of the most dominant players ever: a seven-time All-Star, a WNBA champion and a two-time Olympian with matching gold medals. But now Griner (31) has become entangled in a geopolitical quandary. Instead of preparing for the WNBA season that's less than two months away, she is believed to be detained in Russia on what customs officials described as drug charges, with little word on her case or her wellbeing during the war in Ukraine.
"With all the problems with Russia and them attacking Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?" said Debbie Jackson, Griner's high school basketball coach. "Is this part of politics? So much of it doesn't make any sense to me that I find it hard to believe that this is really the true thing that happened."
Griner was in Russia playing for a professional basketball league, a common offseason practice for WNBA players, who can earn salaries in overseas leagues well beyond what their American teams pay. The date and circumstances of Griner’s potential detention were not known, and the WNBA said all of its players except for Griner were out of the country by Saturday.
Griner is said to be facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted on the drug charges, based on accusations that she had vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Russian authorities, who said Saturday that they had detained an American athlete on these drug charges, did not name Griner, but Russian news agency Tass did.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she had seen reports about Griner but that federal privacy law prevented the US government from discussing a person's detention without their written consent. US officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining US citizens on pretexts.
Representatives for Griner have declined to comment on Griner’s status beyond a statement that they were working to get her back to the US. The uncertainty has caused an outpouring among fans and supporters of Griner, a groundbreaking player known for her unmatched blitz of dunks and her standing as one of the most prominent gay athletes.
A congresswoman in Houston, Griner's hometown, has demanded her release. WNBA players have posted "Free Brittney" messages on Twitter. "There are no words to express this pain," Brittney's wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote last Monday in an Instagram post addressed to Brittney. "I'm hurting, we're hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family."
The Mercury drafted Griner in 2013, in the hope that she would rejuvenate the franchise. The turnaround was swift with Griner playing alongside Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's career scoring leader. The Mercury made the playoffs during Griner's rookie season and won a championship in her second. Last season, she was key to the Mercury's run to the WNBA finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.
"In terms of talent, she was absolutely a force and continues to be a force," said Pamela Wheeler, a former head of the WNBA players union. "I think that everyone was looking for her to help guide the league, which she did, into a new era."
The year Griner was drafted, the league rebranded, changing its logo and focusing on promoting three rookies: Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Elena Delle Donne. Griner seemed to be a good fit, with an engaging personality, a willingness to laugh at herself and a passion for calling out bullying. She was also open about being gay, which has become more common in sports, in part because of her. "I'm up for the challenge," Griner said at the time about being part of the rebranding. "I changed stuff in college basketball, I guess you could say, so I'm up for it. I never shy from anything. Whatever's thrown at me, I'm ready for it."
As she elevated her game domestically, Griner also made a name for herself in international basketball. She won two Olympic gold medals with the US women’s national team, in 2016 and 2021, and started playing for teams in Russia and China during WNBA offseasons.
Nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players were believed to be playing for international teams this offseason, including more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years. “While a number of players are doing it for the money as well,” said Wheeler, the former union leader, “they’re also doing it for the love of the game and continuing to be able to play and continue to keep themselves in playing shape”.
The maximum base salary for WNBA players is about $228,000 (€209,000), but international teams have been known to pay several hundred thousand dollars, and even more than $1 million (€920,000). Griner is set to earn just under the WNBA max in the 2022 season. With the WNBA’s minimum salary about $60,000 (€55,000), many players earn the bulk of their income by playing abroad.
But playing overseas is not a "tourist opportunity" for most players, said Courtney Cox, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who said she travelled to Russia in 2018 to do research for a book about women's professional basketball around the world.
“There’s this whisper network of where is it safe to play, where players are sharing information: where you get paid on time, where they look out for you, the better trainers, all this information,” Cox said. “There’s kind of a trauma bond, I think, that happens, when you play in some of these spaces where you might be one of the only American players, depending on the policies of the league.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, WNBA players in both countries fled. Playing in the United States can come with its own issues. In her memoir In My Skin, Griner wrote about her time at Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated school that had an official policy against homosexuality at the time. In the book, Griner said that Kim Mulkey, her coach, had warned Griner to "keep your business behind closed doors", and told her to cover her tattoos and delete social media posts about her girlfriend and LGBT issues.
But the Griner who entered the WNBA displayed a determination to show that she was comfortable being herself. She talked about being gay, wore fitted suits and bow ties, showed off her tattoos and modelled men's clothing for Nike as the first openly gay athlete endorsed by the brand.
"She framed herself as somebody who was just herself," said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University who specialises in race, sports and gender. She added: "So, when she signs with Nike and when she pushes back on gender roles or when she's doing the cover shoots, it's elevating the power of athletes in the game to write their own narratives about themselves."
In May 2015, Griner married Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson, just weeks after they were arrested after fighting at their house in Phoenix. The WNBA suspended each of them for seven games, and they soon ended their relationship. In 2019, Griner married Cherelle, who also attended Baylor. In an Instagram post on Saturday, Cherelle thanked those who had shown support and asked for privacy "as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely".
Little has been said publicly about Griner's situation in Russia. Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, declined to provide details, including whether Griner had been detained. Colas said in a statement that she was "aware of the situation" in Russia and had been in contact with Griner and her "legal representation" there. "As we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern," Colas said.
Jackson, Griner’s former high school coach, doubts the charges. “It’s just hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete that knows the laws of that country and the cultural differences and norms and just the completely different political system, would even think about putting in their carry-on bag something that was a banned substance in that country,” she said.
Public demands by US officials for the release of Americans detained abroad typically have little effect on foreign captors. Such cases are frequently resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the details may never become public. Some analysts said that elevating the case into the political arena with angry demands could make it more difficult to resolve and put pressure on the other country to not be seen as giving in without a clear win.
Griner's family and friends just want her home. Johnson, her former wife, posted a message of support on Instagram. Cherelle Griner said on Instagram that this was "one of the weakest moments of my life". "My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats every day that goes by," she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.