PHOENIX — The Biden administration has determined that 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, two U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Griner was detained at an airport in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing traces of cannabis oil. 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 office focused on negotiating for the release of hostages and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained.
It was unclear what prompted the shift, though President Joe Biden's administration had been under pressure from members of Congress and others to make Griner's release a priority. The U.S. last week secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner swap that also resulted in a convicted Russian drug trafficker being freed from prison in the U.S.
ESPN first reported the classification in Griner's case. Two U.S. officials confirmed it on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it by name.
In other news: the WNBA will honor Phoenix's Brittney Griner with a floor decal and allow the Mercury to pay her without it counting against the team’s cap, the league announced Tuesday.
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.
“Our main concern is our sister and obviously the season is starting, and we are dedicating the season until she gets back with us," said Mercury Guard Skylar Diggens-Smith.
“BG is important throughout the league and to see that outpouring of support is important to her and her family, Mercury Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard added.
“The WNBA has been the leader with their voice on many important things and when it comes a time for that to happen, our women will speak powerfully. Especially with someone who’s wrongfully imprisoned in another country."
“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,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. "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 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.
“In conjunction with the league, the other 11 teams, and those closest to BG, we will work to keep her top-of-mind as we tip the 2022 season,” said Mercury Executive Vice President and GM Jim Pitman. “While we await her return, our main concern remains for her safety and well-being. Our fans will miss her impact on the court and in our community, and this gesture of including her initials on every court and our BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive activation in every market are for them and for her.”
Griner had one of her best seasons last year — the league's second-leading scorer and sixth in rebounds. She helped the Mercury reach the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.
"We haven't forgot about her. We think about her every day. We are going to continue to carry her legacy and play in her honor until she gets back here with us," said Diggens-Smith.
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