WNBA Star Brittney Griner Arrested in Russia on Drug Charges

WNBA Star Brittney Griner has been detained at an airport near Moscow on suspicion of drug smuggling, as Russia's war on Ukraine escalates tension with the United States.

By Corinne Heller Mar 05, 2022 8:57 PMTags
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WNBA Star Brittney Griner has been arrested on suspicion of drug smuggling in Russia amid growing tensions between the country and the United States and the rest of the West over its invasion on Ukraine.

The Russian Federal Customs Service said Saturday, March 5, that last month, its officials detained the U.S. basketball player after discovering vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. Griner, 31, plays on a Russian team during the WNBA off-season.

"We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA," the player's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement to E! News. "As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern."

The Russian Federal Customs Service announced the arrest on the social network Telegram, along with a video that shows a traveler at the airport who appears to be Griner, 31, going through security, with a man later removing a package from the person's bag. 

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"Customs officers found drugs [among] the two-time Olympic basketball champion in the US team," the message reads in Russian. "In February 2022, an athlete who flew to Moscow from New York went through the green corridor. The service dog of the Sheremetyevo Customs indicated that drugs may be in the carry-on luggage of a US citizen. After scanning the bag, the customs officers noticed vapes. The experts found that the cartridges for them contain liquid with hash oil."

The message continued, "A criminal case was initiated against a US citizen...[for] smuggling of narcotic drugs in a significant amount. The punishment under this article is imprisonment for a term of 5 to 10 years. With regard to the American, a measure of restraint in the form of detention was chosen. Investigations are underway."

The Phoenix Mercury commented on the matter in a statement to E! News, which read, "We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. 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."

In a tweet, USA Basketball said it is "aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia," adding, "Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball and her safety and wellbeing are our primary concerns."

News of Griner's arrest comes a week after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, which has escalated tensions between Moscow and the United States.

Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

For the past seven years, Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and seven-time All-Star, has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA's off-season. She has made as much as $1.5 million a year in Russia, while she had a base salary of $215,000 last season for the Mercury, USA Today reported.

Many U.S. basketball players compete in foreign leagues, including in Russia, to supplement their income. Several American athletes began making plans to leave Russia following the start of the war with Ukraine and a rep for the WNBA said all the league's players besides Griner had left both countries, The New York Times reported.

Griner most recently played in Russia on Jan. 29, before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments, according to NBC News.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In 2016, ESPN the magazine interviewed Griner in Russia. After playing the previous two winters in China, Griner began her first season with UMMC Ekaterinburg that year, months after departing the United States following her split from ex-wife Glory Johnson. Griner is currently in a relationship with partner Cherelle Watson Griner. She has not commented on the WNBA star's arrest.


In Russia, Griner worked with a few familiar faces. The outlet said part of her team's coaching staff was made up of Phoenix Mercury coaches and that a third of the players were American, playing on foreign passports.

For Griner, working in Russia also affords her a break from her life back home. "I don't have to talk to anybody over here," she told ESPN. "I don't have to see anybody. I don't have to answer my phone. And everybody is asleep half the time when I'm up. I can be disconnected when I'm over here."

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